The Personal History of David Copperfield
2020, PG, 119 min. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Dev Patel, Morfydd Clark, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Daisy May Cooper, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Jairaj Varsani, Darren Boyd.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 28, 2020
There are many forces, both internal and external, that shape identity. From our own life experience to the people who make their mark upon us, who we are consists of these tightly woven threads bound into a tapestry, into a soul. It was a central theme of Victorian heavyweight Charles Dickens’ writings, and one that is the through line to his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, or rather, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Director Armando Iannucci, along with co-screenwriter and frequent collaborator Simon Blackwell, has thankfully distilled that long-winded title down to The Personal History of David Copperfield (to the gratitude of those responsible for movie theatre marquees, perhaps, if such a position exists anymore). They have also distilled Dickens’ novel down to its essentials, and the result is such a sweet and soothing tonic, it is utterly impossible not to succumb to its spell.
Which might seem odd, coming from Iannucci, widely known for his hilariously caustic dissection of power and politics (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep), to helm an ultimately uplifting story in which good does indeed conquer evil. But lest you think the filmmaker has gone soft, his trademark rapid-fire wit remains intact, albeit with the expletives removed. And while the class struggles Dickens famously depicted often lean toward whimsy here, they remain the chief catalyst of David’s journey. Using every cinematic hat trick available, the film clips along with a breezy (and sometimes breathless) air. Here’s young David (Varsani), born from a widow (Clark), menaced by an evil stepfather (Boyd), and subsequently banished to labor in a London factory. There’s David, now grown (Patel), penniless and seeking refuge with his aunt (Swinton) and her distant relative (Laurie). Now he’s off to boarding school, living life as a gentleman, as fortune’s favor smiles on him (and then inevitably frowns). Around and around the wheel turns for David and the people in his life, who he is destined to meet again and again. Throughout his journeys through the social strata of England, he is constantly collecting phrases and notes derived from the people orbiting his life, notes that will eventually culminate in his destiny fulfilled as a writer.
Similar to Iannucci’s approach in casting his last film, The Death of Stalin, with English and American actors (see Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev), the filmmaker embraces a colorblind approach in populating the narrative, and the results transcend gimmickry. Dev Patel is glorious in the title role, skillfully weaving between pathos and slapstick, often mere moments apart, anchoring the film with an exuberant affability. The entire cast gleefully digs into their parts with a relish not seen in an ensemble in quite some time. Even my screening partner, who has a notorious aversion to British period pieces, was helplessly beguiled by The Personal History of David Copperfield. Early on, a character describes Copperfield’s unflagging optimism: “He digs for joy, that boy, and finds it, too.” There’s no need for a shovel to reveal all the joys of this film.
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The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci, Dev Patel, Morfydd Clark, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Daisy May Cooper, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Jairaj Varsani, Darren Boyd