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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Updated: Mar 9, 2020




Dev Patel leads in Armando Ianucci's "The Personal History of David Copperfield" adapted for screen from Charles Dickens' eight novel
Dev Patel leads in Armando Ianucci's "The Personal History of David Copperfield" adapted for screen from Charles Dickens' eight novel

Based on David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens; Directed by Armando Iannucci; Screenplay by Simon Blackwell. Cast: Dev Patel; Jairaj Varsani; Tilda Swinton; Hugh Laurie; Peter Capaldi; Ben Whishaw; Paul Whitehouse; Daisy May Cooper; Rosalind Eleazar


Dickens’ doorstep becomes a two-hour romp in this breakneck gallop through a boy’s maturity to manhood, smashing through plot devices, superfluous characters and the fourth wall as it goes.

Dev Patel’s Copperfield is reading his life story to an audience as the film opens, and director Armando Iannuci never lets the viewer forget they are witnessing a performance, a fiction, full of artifice, sleight of hand and narrative tricks.

Much of the film takes place in Yarmouth, Kent and Suffolk, with Dickensian London sent up something rotten, as Peter Capaldi’s Mr Micawber, dressed like Uncle Sam, dodges an irate muffin man behind barrels and cartwheels. Lionel Bart’s Oliver also looms large in the physicality of the street scenes and school scenes, as choreographed clowning takes the place of song and dance numbers.

Patel’s grown up David certainly holds his own in a sea of high-octane performances from Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, superb as Mr Dick, and Tilda Swinton as Betsy Trotwood. And special mention must be made of Bronagh Gallagher who lights up the screen in every one of her short scenes as the endlessly fecund, endlessly put upon, but always joyful Mrs Micawber. The only performance that did not quite hit all the Top Cs was Gwendoline Christie’s Jane Murdstone. Hard to be animated when described as ‘having a face like Dutch cheese’, but it felt like the Stanley knife Iannuci had taken to the all the other characters’ corsets and spats, hadn’t been able to liberate the novel’s creepy sister in law.

Seeing Patel’s confident adult Copperfield at the start of the film, provides a frame to make the tribulations that rain down on Jairaj Varsani’s young David bearable. The sight of the carefully and tenderly dressed little boy entering the bottle factory as a child labourer, his mother’s last act of protection against the overpowering forces of his cruel stepfather, is one of the film’s most powerful moments.

But Iannuci’s drama is always accompanied by a knowing wink as scenes dissolve into animation, Bunuel like characters step into the action to alter the narrative, and in one superb piece of playfulness, Dora, David’s fiancée asks to be written out, ‘I don’t belong’. In this version of the drama, Dora is replaced in David’s affections by a spirited, three dimensional Agnes, a vast improvement on the drippy, key- carrying Agnes of the novel.

‘The world is made of gammon and spinach,’ young David writes, quoting his nurse Peggotty, broadly played by Daisy May Cooper, opposite an equally broad Paul Whitehouse as Mr Peggotty. And that’s a handy summation of the film, as it ponders what it is to reflect on and create our own story and try to tell it as best we can.


With the most illustrious of British actors adorning the screen and a far-reaching approach to cinematography, The Personal History of David Copperfield according to Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin) and Simon Blackwell will prove a box office hit for Dickens’ devotees. Otherwise, it might just be all too exhausting.

This is a rampaging, cleverly shot film and a feast for the eye. Iannucci’s interpretation gallops along bringing Charles Dickens’ fictional autobiography David Copperfield (1850) to the screen in vivid colours without a moment’s pause, covering seascapes, landscapes, the metropolis and a variety of idiosyncratic interiors - whirling back and forth. The peculiar boathouse, the wretched bottle factory and London’s infamous slums are perfectly detailed.

The diegetic sounds are loud, with much banging of machinery, loud exclamations and bursts of laughter and fury. The off-screen music is a continuous, searching, crescendo.

The audience is swept along by all the familiar Dickensian characters, masterfully portrayed by each actor in their own inimitable Dickensian style. The actors smile and gnarl, shout and swoon with much effect. They positively caricature the caricatures. Their costumes are rich, even the rags.

Dev Patel plays an engaging David, as does Jairaj Varsani as the boy Copperfield. BME actors seamlessly play traditionally white characters - familiar to stage but less so on film, making this British block buster one of the first.

But for those, like the contemporary Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who find Dickens’ style over embellished and his characters impossible to behold then The Personal History of David Copperfield will be frustrating and the two hours never-ending.

Quite simply, if Victoriana Dickens (and Ianucci) style isn’t your thing, there lies the crunch. Trollope didn’t hold by Dickens’ pen or characters. In his Autobiography, Trollope wrote:

“I do acknowledge that Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, and others have

become household words in every house, as though they were human

beings; but to my judgment they are not human beings, nor are any

of the characters human which Dickens has portrayed. It has been

the peculiarity and the marvel of this man's power, that he has

invested his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense

with human nature.”





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