Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

Armando Iannucci and a splendid cast make Dickens their own

It’s not easy to adapt an iconic work of literature, let alone make your interpretation of it not only stand out but feel fresh among the legions of others in existence. However, after a career in cutting edge satire and being involved in crafting some of the very best characters in British comedy, from Alan Partridge to Malcolm Tucker, we should all know better than to ever doubt the talents of one Armando Iannucci. And to that point, his funny, heartwarming and eccentric take on Charles Dickens’ landmark “David Copperfield” is an irresistible concoction.

The story is one very well established, as boy David (played in adulthood by Dev Patel) grows into a man and along the way undergoes a journey filled with twists of fate and turns of fortune, meeting some remarkable people along the way. Finding a way to both respect the history of and shake up the source material for a modern age, Iannucci and Simon Blackwell’s screenplay may irk some purists but the film is one with a strong beating heart and an infectious idiosyncrasy.

The colour blind casting works a treat in gathering a crop of exceptional talent and letting them run wild with the material, and it also makes this particular telling of an age old tale one that truly stands out. The narrative structure is not always neat and some characters do get more lost in the shuffle than others but The Personal History of David Copperfield is regularly a pleasure and never a chore. As the story encompasses some strong emotional scenes, as well as some charmingly bonkers social faux pas and quietly moving scenes of human connection and resolve.

Dev Patel leads the film with such beaming confidence and purity as David, whose journeys from idyllic childhood to cruelty, wealth to rags and eventually his road to an ultimate passion, all flourish thanks to his strength of character and his endurance. Other marvellous performances come from a terrifically eccentric Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, an equally wonderful Tilda Swinton as the stern but strong Betsey Trotwood, a slimy – almost reptilian – Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep and a theatrical Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber. Alongside these bigger parts are some great supporting turns by Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield, Benedict Wong as her alcoholic father Mr. Wickfield, Daisy May Cooper as jovial nanny Peggoty and the ruthless duo of Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the cold and inhuman Murdstone siblings. This is a real ensemble peice!

Zac Nicholson’s brilliant cinematography adds the finishing touches to a film that is a period piece but with a very modern kick and a refreshing feel. This genre is far from my forte but a well balanced tone and cast allowed to run free with the iconic material makes this Copperfield fly from page to screen effectively. And ultimately the celebration of the power of the written word and the strength our memories and experiences is one that carries a great impact.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is the kind of adaptation that shows just how timeless some stories can be.

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