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‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Review: Dir. Armando Iannucci (2019) [LFF]

There’s an unspoken risk when once again journeying into the works of Dickens and Shakespeare. It can often be the case that adaptations rely too much on the source material. Although these are classics, we’re far too familiar with the work for a simple adaptation to be of interest. There are simply dozens of adaptations of each novel/play, with so many lacking a distinctive voice. On the other hand, it can feel almost treacherous to change too much of source sacred texts. I was personally fine with an animated anthropomorphic cat musical, but others will want a taste of something a bit more humane. That’s why it’s important to have a voice as distinctive as Dickens at the helm, even if at first glance it seems like an odd fit. Armando Iannucci’s biting satire from In the Loop and The Death of Stalin may be too cutting and vicious to immediately becomes bedfellows with Dickens, but it works in elevating this adaptation to a more modern audience.

Dev Patel stars as the titular hero, a young man who has grown up in harsh circumstances, but has always been kind and looked at the world with love and consideration. He navigates his way through life, encountering a myriad of remarkable characters, each leaving an imprint on Copperfield’s world view. He yearns to get an education, support his friends and family through hard times, and also find love. What could be a jarring episodic narrative – much like the original story being published as a serial – is given confident sure-footing thanks to a range of devices other than the usual voice over (which is still present). Flashbacks projected on walls and snappy editing certainly help in regards to time jumps and changes in the locale.

Where The Personal History of David Copperfield really excels is in its comedy. The film is laugh-out-loud hilarious, with Dickens’ quick wit and quirky characters given stunning delivery and mannerisms by a phenomenal cast. Whether they have limited screen time or not, everybody puts their stamp on their roles. Hugh Laurie has some of the best moments as the eccentric Mr. Dick, whose dry delivery of surreal comments and vacant expression unify in a hilarious performance. Tilda Swinton and Ben Whishaw also chew the scenery in the best way possible, never going full pantomime, yet always standing out as they should. Although Patel is at risk of being overshadowed, he excels at being the audience’s avatar, it’s heart, and also relishes his opportunities to parody his castmates’ performances in a series of spot-on impersonations. There are too many gems in this cast to single out everyone, but the likes of Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Aimee Kelly, and Daisy May Cooper all shine with every line of dialogue.

The recreation of Victorian London is sublime, from the wonderful costumes to the sets. It allows for a number of delightful setpieces that introduce farce and slapstick, all handled with a comedic panache to not disrupt the classical quality. Iannucci also commits to colourblind casting, a practice only a pedant would challenge. The pacing and enthusiasm quickly glosses over any questions as to how certain characters could be related, a point which highlights how this isn’t a tale of race, and thus needs no excuse to ignore simplistic boundaries. It adds a certain spark and brings the film into the modern era without betraying its roots.

On paper, this may not seem as daring or current as Iannucci’s incredible work over the years in the world of British television, but what it does show is a storyteller who can apply their own voice to even the most familiar of stories. For anyone wishing to avoid another dry, BBC 1 Christmas adaptation of Dickens, this is fresh, fun, fancy, and still highly cultured and smart. It’s a great feat to make something so old and ingrained in British culture, to suddenly feel youthful and modern without relying on a change of setting, anachronistic music, and modern slang thrown in.

The Personal Life of David Copperfield will be released in 2020.

Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.


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