If I’m being completely honest, I had no idea that ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ was based on a Charles Dickens novel. That might be because I have never read a Charles Dickens novel. I’m sure many can make the same claim, but I’d bet there’s not too many people that earned an English minor that can.
Based on this adaptation, it’s quite possible that I soon will no longer be able to make that claim.
Dev Patel and Hugh Laurie in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield.’ (Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)
The film follows the life and times of the titular character, David Copperfield, from his youth (Jairaj Varsani) to adulthood (Dev Patel).
Young David’s life starts out happy enough, filled with love and wonder, surrounded by his mother, Clara, and a nanny, Peggotty. Things change, however, for young David after he returns home from a trip to Peggotty’s family’s home.
The previously widowed Clara has married the cruel and insufferable Edward Murdstone. While one Murdstone would be enough to ruin anyone’s life, a second – sister, Jane – is also part of the equation. Despite Clara’s efforts play peacekeeper between members of the blended family, the Murdstones quickly tires of the young boy and he is sent away.
From there, David’s up-and-down journey begins, filled with boarding schools, dingy London dwellings, jobs (good and bad) and more eccentric characters than one could expect to find in an entire lifetime.
Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield.’ (Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)
Having never read the book, I was able to watch the film without expectations or any basis for comparison. So, while I can’t speak to its adherence to the source material, I can say undoubtedly that it is a delightful film. Eventually.
Things start slow, with young David’s story setting the foundation for what’s to come later. It includes some beautiful imagery, namely Peggotty’s family’s home, and some (necessary) dark moments to set the stage, but overall, the pacing felt off. In hindsight, the semi-frenetic pace at which the rest of the film moves, further accentuates that feeling.
That feeling doesn’t last long though, as by the David has grown and Patel has taken over on screen, the story has hit its stride – the jokes begin to hit, and you become more invested in the characters.
And it really is the characters that drive the success of ‘Copperfield.’
Patel is as good as I’ve ever seen him, including his Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning performance in ‘Lion,’ and his BAFTA-nominated turn in ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ David is a complicated character who you’re keenly aware is strong and intelligent. But at the same time, he is flawed and reserved and eager to please, due to the ups and downs he’s encountered along the way. Patel subtly navigates his way through both, often showing you both unique side at the same time. Even in David’s worst moments, you can’t help but root for him.
Morfydd Clark and Dev Patel in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield.’ (Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)
In addition to Patel, the cast includes Tilda Swinton as David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood; Hugh Laurie as the loveable Mr. Dick; Peter Capaldi as the pauper with the heart of gold, Mr. Micawber; and Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the vile Murdstones. My personal favorites are Laurie and Christie, whose characters who are polar opposites of one another, but make you genuinely feel something for them every time they’re on screen.
The technical aspects, sans a few scenes where CGI is very obviously CGI, are competent, but not spectacular, and they don’t really need to be. Everything about this story is driven by the characters and how director Armando Iannucci and his co-screenwriter, Simon Blackwell, used them to bring the original work to life.
★★★★ of ★★★★★