The Personal History of David Copperfield is a bold and wildly imaginative interpretation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Scottish director/co-writer Armando Iannucci keeps the Victorian era setting but uses a diverse, multiracial cast. Dev Patel, a renowned British actor of Indian descent, leads a talented ensemble that reflects modern society. The film is delightfully whimsical with several laugh out loud moments. Creative cinematography and an upbeat score keep the pace lively until a strangely abrupt ending.
David Copperfield (Dev Patel) takes the stage at a theater humming with anticipation. He begins to read the story of his life. Then decides it’s better to show the audience. He turns around and walks through the backdrop to his childhood. He was loved by a doting widowed mother (Morfydd Clark) and treasured nanny (Daisy May Cooper). An inquisitive boy, his happiness is curtailed by his mother’s marriage to the dreadful Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd). Young David (Jairaj Varsani) is soon banished to a life of poverty and hard labor at the Murdstone bottle factory in London.
Years later, the grown David seeks the help of his father’s sister, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). She had wanted a niece, but begrudgingly supports her nephew. David becomes best friends with Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the daughter of his aunt’s drunken business manager, Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong). And helps their mentally ill cousin, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), out of his shell.
David returns to London with grand ambitions. He endeavors to be a moneyed gentleman. He drinks, carouses, and becomes fixated on the immature debutante, Dora Spenlow (also played by Morfydd Clark). David’s taste of luxury is short lived. He learns that his aunt’s fortune has been inexplicably lost. Mr. Wickfield’s new partner, the sniveling Uriah Heap (Ben Whishaw), is now in charge of her financial affairs. David is even more alarmed when Mr. Heap sets his sights on Agnes.
Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, The Death of Stalin) applies high concept filmmaking to a known commodity. The Personal History of David Copperfield may be the most original take on Dickens I’ve seen. Every part of the film is artistically different and stylized. Iannucci has an eye for transitioning small objects to a larger field of vision. David’s journal writings burst into beautifully lit and staged sets. He also overlays the action with projected imagery at key points in the narrative. Thus adding another visual emphasis for the audience to focus on. Iannucci uses the entire screen as a palette.
Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Lion) carries the film with impeccable comic timing. David Copperfield constantly encounters bizarre and eccentric people. Patel reacts effortlessly without being overshadowed by his all-star supporting cast. He remains an affable and endearing protagonist while letting others shine. No easy feat when sharing the screen with heavyweights like Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, and Peter Capaldi; who plays the always broke Mr. Micawber. David’s pursuit of the silly Dora Spenlow had me in stitches. Their goofy romance is absolutely hilarious.
The Personal History of David Copperfield loses cohesion in a rushed final act. The last twenty-minutes feels like the film is in fast forward. It’s almost as if Armando Iannucci ran out of clever ideas and realized he had multiple unresolved storylines. The film’s two hour runtime moves quickly. A slightly longer edit would have been less terse and kept the same level of vibrancy.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a breath of fresh air to a stale genre. English period costume films can be dull and inaccessible to most audiences. Armando Iannucci crafts an inclusive and spirited update of Charles Dickens. Dev Patel is brilliant here. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a production of FilmNation Entertainment. It will be released theatrically in the United States on August 28th by Searchlight Pictures.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.