Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

This lush, sentimental retelling of Dickens’ ultimate up-from-the-gutter story is a Copperfield for the 21st Century: energetic, sprightly, and all-embracing.

Dev Patel in a scene from "The Personal History of David Copperfield"

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The Personal History of David Copperfield 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

Stars: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar

In theaters; streaming dates to be announced

Forget every Charles Dickens screen adaptation you’ve ever seen — Armando Ianucci’s take on David Copperfield is the funniest, freshest, most fulfilling cinematic foray into Victorian England since, maybe, ever.

You would be hard-pressed to imagine a more appealing cast — from the top-tier stars to the smallest supporting players — than in this lush, sentimental retelling of Dickens’ ultimate up-from-the-gutter story. Effervescent where previous versions are stodgy; irreverent where others are ponderously deferential to the source material, this is a Copperfield for the 21st Century: energetic, sprightly, and all-embracing.

For those who were not compelled to read Dickens’ 600-plus-page 1850 novel in elementary school, the story involves a young man who, after an appropriately dark Victorian childhood in a British workhouse, finds his way into the home of some wealthy relatives and then forges his own place in the world. Dickens infused a lot of his own life into the story (He called the title character “my favorite child”), which makes it perhaps the most engaging of his novels. It’s also his most free-form work — Dickens had no idea how some plot elements would pan out even as he was still serializing it — a quality that writer-director Ianucci (The Death of Stalin) puts to excellent use. Through clever transitions and comically mannered delivery, he finds a subliminal chipperness in the material that has eluded other filmmakers (Although George Cukor did give it a go in 1935 when he cast W.C. Fields as young David’s kind-hearted benefactor Mr. Micawber). It’s a trick Baz Luhrman tried in his version of Romeo and Juliet, but while his effort felt shoehorned into the Elizabethan universe, here the ploy fits as nicely as a gentlewoman’s high-button shoes.

As the wide-eyed, ever-optimistic title character, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) has us rooting for him from the moment he appears on screen. Even while employing an admirably diverse cast, Ianucci’s decision to cast an actor of Indian descent may seem bold.  But it’s totally in line with Britain’s long history of trade with the subcontinent and the racially mixed families that settled in and around London at the time. In any case, Patel makes a perfect Copperfield, his wide-open face a palate on which he paints successive expressions of humiliation, wonder, and ultimately triumph. Tilda Swinton is adorable (yes, you read that right) as his eccentric aunt. And Hugh Laurie should be Oscar nomination-bound for his performance as David’s perpetually confused but ultimately sharp-as-a-tack uncle. As the unctuous-but-scheming Uriah Heep, Ben Whishaw is gleefully infuriating, his eyes beading menacingly from under a Dumb and Dumber haircut. 

The undisputed all-time master of opening sentences, Dickens starts Copperfield’s narrative with this line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

True to his source, Iannucci begins his movie with those same words. And as he squeezes every possible laugh from Dickens’ tale while leaving plenty of room for authentic sentiment, Iannucci becomes a hero of sorts himself, boldly throwing open new windows on a story we thought we already knew.

Featured image: Dev Patel and Hugh Laurie in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

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