TIFF Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

An endlessly charming Dev Patel leads an all-star ensemble in The Personal History of David Copperfield, a hilariously sharp adaptation of Dickens from director Armando Iannucci.

Charles Dickens has a likable enough sense of humor in between the sheer agony his characters are forced to endure, but it takes an exceptional director and a troupe of unusually canny actors to make his works feel truly modern. Luckily, Armando Iannucci, best known for his work on Veep and The Death of Stalin, manages to strike this deft balance in The Personal History of David Copperfield, helping audiences not only appreciate the literary abilities of Dickens, but emotionally connect with the material.

None of this would be possible without star Dev Patel ably guiding the production, fluctuating between the put-upon straight man, dashing hero, and comedic pro in his own right. Patel has been on the verge of superstardom for the past 10 years, but after this performance, anyone who isn’t casting this capable and charismatic young actor as their leading man is just being willfully ignorant.

This adaptation is — let’s be real — definitely not your English teacher’s David Copperfield. Sure, it still features the young author narrating his own hardscrabble life, as he spends his childhood being passed from cruel stepfather to mercenary factory boss to opportunistic debtor, and goes from rags to riches and back again half a dozen times before the film’s end. But it also tells the familiar story with post-modern flourishes. David Copperfield, for example, is as an adult physically present at his own birth. As he begins to turn his memories into stories, his own authorial voice comes into play and is reflected in the narrative.

There’s an easygoing and generous nature to the depiction of the many strong characters in David’s life — for the most part they are harmless eccentrics, and he treats them as such. This deftness of touch prevents the narrative from becoming overly bleak, especially in the first act as David is faced with injustice after injustice. A truly remarkable supporting cast breathes life into the troupe of cartoonish buffoons who so frequently populate the works of Dickens.

But these characters bring so much more than humor to the proceedings. There is real nuance, so we see them all as David does: the well-intentioned personalities who bring irritation and complications to his life, but also charm and flavor. Although everyone excels here, Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are particular standouts as David’s bizarre but loving aunt and second cousin, as is Ben Whishaw in his performance as the obsequious, social-climbing Uriah Heep. Every time they appear on the screen, they completely command the audience’s attention.

With such a frenetic cast of characters entering and exiting the story at random points throughout, it speaks well to Patel’s natural ability that he never becomes overshadowed by their broader, more showy performances. His warmth and charm ground the production whenever it could be in danger of losing focus. David Copperfield is also a character who can easily seem boring in comparison, but never here, where Patel brings intelligence and wit that prevent him from being seen as just another generic good guy.

Although Iannucci occasionally drifts into a sort of maudlin sentimentality, especially towards the end of the film, for the most part he creates a well-balanced adaptation of David Copperfield with actual humor and poignancy. His work here lacks the bite of some of the projects that have made him famous, but that doesn’t impact the production negativity.

His approach is a perfect match for the baked-in, genteel social satire that Dickens provided in the original text, creating a charming, likable period film that should capture the hearts of audiences.