‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Review

The Personal History of David Copperfield
Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ (Photo by Dean Rogers © 2020 20th Century Studios)

Dev Patel hadn’t read the script and didn’t know who David Copperfield was when he quickly said yes to taking on the lead role of Searchlight Pictures’ The Personal History of David Copperfield. He’s glad he did and audiences are certainly fortunate Patel signed on. Patel’s the perfect embodiment of the titular character, bringing a sense of joy and wonder to Charles Dickens’ creation. Patel’s easy to embrace in the title role, delivering a clever and charismatic performance.

Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, Veep) directed and co-wrote this whimsical version of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic novel which takes us on an entertaining jaunt through Victorian-era England. The film opens with David Copperfield taking to the stage to introduce the audience to the story of his life. He steps back through time to lay out the moments surrounding his birth at The Rookery, a normal home that actually had nothing to do with birds.

David’s our constant, friendly narrator as key players in his tale are laid out, beginning with his pretty widowed mom, Clara (Morfydd Clark); her loyal servant with a quick wit, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper); and fussy Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) whose disappointment at the birth of a boy rather than a girl causes her to flee the house in a tizzy.

David spent his early years away at school, with Peggotty as his guardian. His thirst for knowledge knew no bounds and his time spent with Peggotty, her brother Daniel (Paul Whitehouse), and his family – including adopted children Ham and Emily – in a house fashioned from an overturned boat were joyous. His imagination ran free and the friendships he cultivated endured for a lifetime.

After his mom married Mr. Murdstone, young David’s idyllic life came to an end. Murdstone attempted to muzzle his outgoing, effervescent personality with beatings and ultimately the young boy was sent away to work in a miserable Murdstone factory in London. The only silver lining was finding lodging with eternal optimist and all-around nice guy Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his equally enjoyable wife (Bronagh Gallagher).

Years later after his mother died, and after Mr. and Mrs. Micawber were hauled away due to their debts, David fled to his eccentric aunt’s house – a large home with a donkey problem. With her support, David blossomed and found employment as a proctor. It was during this period when all the various strands of interesting characters’ lives intersected and when David embraced the writer inside.

David constantly jotted down colorful turns of phrases and anecdotes about friends, relatives, and people of strong character, memorializing his life and those he encountered in print. For David, writing wasn’t an option; it was his life. What’s real, what’s an embellishment, and what is an alternate version of actual events that transpired? His collection of notes ran the full gamut, yet all expressed the pure joy of being alive.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is bursting at the seams with memorable supporting characters brought to life by an outstanding group of actors. Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and his belief beheaded King Charles I is sending troubling thoughts into his head provides David with a wealth of utterances to jot down. The first love of David’s life, Dora, is a sweet but intellectual lightweight who constantly speaks for her beloved dog. Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the woman who’s his best match in every way, provides invaluable support. And, of course, there’s the main villain of the piece, the unscrupulous Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw). Whishaw, who describes his character as a “mirror of David” who’s taken a different path, does a terrific job of playing the slimy lawyer responsible for the hardship that befalls David’s Aunt Betsey.

Charles Dickens’ novel comes fully alive on the screen and this adaptation confirms the story is timeless with themes that still resonate 170 years after it was written. The diverse casting is a refreshing, groundbreaking take on ageless material, as is the way Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell captured the heart and soul of the source material by embracing the comedy.

The ending feels rushed, as if a half-hour of story was crammed into 10 minutes. But that’s really just a minor misstep in this otherwise joyous, uplifting adventure.


MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material and brief violence

Running Time: 116 minutes

Release Date: August 28, 2020