The Personal History of David Copperfield is fresh and utterly charming

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Zygi Kamasa, Armando Iannucci and Dev Patel attend "The Personal History of David Copperfield" Screening at Soho Hotel on December 02, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Zygi Kamasa, Armando Iannucci and Dev Patel attend "The Personal History of David Copperfield" Screening at Soho Hotel on December 02, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images) /

A stellar cast, clever script, lively direction, and stunning costumes make The Personal History of David Copperfield a charming and unmissable take on Dickens.

Nearly a year after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield  is finally hitting theaters across the United States — and we couldn’t be happier that audiences can finally see this gem of a filmThe Personal History of David Copperfield, despite its slightly pretentious-sounding title, has practically everything going for it: a stellar cast (all of whom are working at full force), an incredibly clever script, lively and energetic direction from Iannucci, and gorgeous costumes that make it a visual delight.

Based on the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield tells the story of, well, David Copperfield (Dev Patel) as he wanders through life, moving from a houseboat to a bottling factory to a preparatory school to a law firm, and all of the idiosyncratic people and troubles he runs into on the way. The plot isn’t so much a single narrative as it is vignettes focused on the most exciting parts of his life, all of which are told from David’s point of view as he pens a novel.

The star of the show, unquestionably, is Dev Patel as the titular Copperfield. It should come as no surprise that he gives an outstanding performance; he’s proven himself time and again in films like Lion, Chappie and, of course, Slumdog Millionaire, so we know he’s an actor with an innate ability to bring charm and levity to any role he steps into. However, as David Copperfield, he’s particularly endearing — incredibly easy to root for, with a constant underdog sense about him without feeling beat over the head about how much we’re supposed to like him.

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However, as amazing as Patel’s performance is, it’s undoubtedly enhanced by the slew of committed supporting roles. Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, and Gwendoline Christie are just a few of the many, many stellar performances — and wow, what a cast. Every actors fills their role to a ‘T’, and we’re also in love with the way that the film has no issues with race-bending parent-child duos. Much in the vein of the 1997 Cinderella, there is no acknowledgment whatsoever of the ethnicity of any character, which we very much appreciate. In our humble opinion, many a period film could learn from David Copperfield when it comes to inclusivity in casting.

Of the stacked list of supporting players, Laurie’s Mr. Dick and Swinton’s Mrs. Trotwood stood out the most to us. The duo plays an offbeat husband and wife who live in a constant state of barely-controlled chaos, shooing donkeys off their lawn, attempting to manage their friend’s alcoholism, and worrying about whether or not King Charles the 1st was beheaded. Although with the wrong actors and director we can envision a world in which their characters are unbearably annoying, both Laurie and Swinton strike the perfect balance between humor and emotionality. Although the are undeniably comedic, there is a depth and nuance to both of them that endears the audience immediately.

The balance between humor and emotionality is not only struck perfectly by the cast, but also by the writer and director. Screenwriter Simon Blackwell’s script jumps off the page under Iannucci’s direction. The camera moves swiftly and playfully, often tilting one way or the other in the same manner the characters do. At times bordering on dizzying, the direction can hardly be described as lazy or uninspired. The camera is practically a living character with how much it weaves through each scene.

We will admit that, at times (especially in the films last act), the drama didn’t land quite as well as we would’ve hoped, but that’s mainly due to the fact that it revolves around neither David nor Mr. Dick nor Mr. Trotwood — instead focusing on characters from David’s past who really only featured majorly in the first act. By choosing to build the climax around them, the film loses us because, by that point, we had grown so attached to the characters David had met later in life that we’d all but forgotten about the ones from his childhood.

Still, despite the slightly sloppy ending, the rest of the film’s emotional beats work to a ‘T’. Boyd and Christie’s severe Murdstone siblings are terrifying, severe, and fearsome, especially when we’re seeing them from the perspective of David as a child.

But where the drama of the film doesn’t always work, we can’t find a single fault when it comes to the film’s comedy. Iannucci is no slouch in the genre (having directed 2017’s The Death of Stalin), so it should’ve been no surprise that the film has a sharp wit to it, but we were amazed at just how much of the film’s runtime we spent with a grin plastered on our faces.

The gorgeous costumes, playful direction, airtight script, and unbeatable cast all work in perfect harmony to make The Personal History of David Copperfield a bright, charming take on Charles Dickens that’s well-worth the price of admission.

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Have you seen The Personal History of David Copperfield? What’s your favorite Dev Patel role? Sound off in the comments below.