The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Photo: Empire Entertainment


5/5 Stars


From birth to infancy, from adolescence to adulthood, the good-hearted David Copperfield is surrounded by kindness and wickedness, poverty and wealth, as he meets an array of remarkable characters in Victorian England. As David sets out to be a writer, in his quest for family, friendship, romance and status, the story of his life is the most seductive tale of all.


If you are at all familiar with the work of Armando Iannucci (Veep, the Thick of It, the Death of Stalin), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that his stylish and stylized adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic is really bloody good and really, really funny but you would probably be surprised to hear just how big-hearted, uncynical and sentimental it is. 

Co-written with frequent collaborator and major British comedy writer in his own right, Simon Blackwell, Iannuci has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Personal History of David Copperfield is no stuffy, overly reverent literary adaptation but is a fresh, vital, joyous and quirky and heartfelt take that brings out whatever comic touches the novel might already have.

With a framing device of David Copperfield relaying his life story at a public reading, not only do we get narration that actually feels earned when so much narration in film suffers so badly from the sin of telling and not showing, but it allows Messrs. Ainnuci and Blackwell to really get creative in how they tell this familiar story. From inventive scene transitions to utterly demolishing the fourth wall, there’s a real energy to how The Personal History of David Copperfield plays out beyond its already cracking script and brilliant performances.  

While the film never shies away from the harsher periods in David Copperfield’s life and a great many of those scenes pack a serious emotional punch, what really impresses is just how breathlessly entertaining it is. It’s perfectly paced, covering vast acres of ground without ever feeling rushed or overstretched and the characters, as played by a selection of some of the best (mostly) British acting talent out there, manage to be both well drawn and memorably larger-than life. And it can’t be emphasized enough: it is incredibly funny.

As for that spectacular cast, it’s hard not to write paragraphs about how perfect each of the major (and many of the minor players) are in their roles. About how Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are the eccentric comedy duo that you never knew you wanted; about how the great Peter Capaldi has seldom been more sympathetic than as that loveable but pathetic scamp, Mr Micawber (picture Fagen but as a sweetheart); or about how Gwendoline Christie has never been more imposing or Ben Whishaw never further away from his most beloved roles as the genuinely creepy, Uriah Heep.

One can certainly go on for days about how perfect Dev Patel is in the title role or how Benedict Wong will no doubt surprise those who only know him from his Marvel role, but why bother? With a cast this impressive working with a script this good and in so safe a pair of hands as Armando Iannucci, there was no way that they weren’t going to – to quote another beloved British actor – “blow the bloody doors off.” It’s not just the more familiar names who don’t put a foot wrong, though. There isn’t a bad performance or bad bit of casting in sight.

Which, of course, brings us to that elephant that’s been sitting quietly in the corner, waiting its turn. Undoubtedly, the thing that is probably most controversial about this version of David Copperfield is the decision to go for “colour-blind casting”; the decision to cast actors purely for how well they fit the part, regardless of their race or ethnicity. It’s an interesting decision that no doubt is largely responsible for the shameful 6.4 rating it has received on the IMDB but it does, admittedly, take a second to get used to seeing blood-relatives of completely different races and a Victorian England where different ethnicities enjoy the same status. It is only a momentary distraction, though, and the minute you buy into the unspoken fantastical conventions of this already quite heightened story, it quickly becomes clear that rather than just some desperate attempt at “wokeness”, it has resulted in a cast that genuinely can’t be improved upon.

And that’s pretty true of the entire film. This is a very familiar story, but I can’t imagine a better telling of it than this. I certainly can’t imagine a funnier, more moving, more lively David Copperfield – and that applies both to the film as a whole and to Dev Patel’s perfect rendition of the character. Forget that 6.4 IMDB rating or even the respectable 7.7 Metacritic rating: this is the real deal – an easy five out of five and clearly one of the best and most welcome films of the year.


The Personal History of David Copperfield is now showing in cinemas.

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