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MOVIES: The Personal History of David Copperfield (LFF 2019) - Review

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The Personal History of David Copperfield is a Charles Dickens adaption for everyone, telling a large portion of the life story of Copperfield in a way that doesn’t require knowledge of the book to do from a director who clearly loves the source material; with Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, The Thick of It) weaving a completely accessible story that hits the right notes for multiple age brackets over the course of its runtime. This is in part due to the times that we spend with the film's lead at different parts in his life - Copperfield starts off as young and inexperienced but a natural writer with a skill for wordplay and thought expression, played by a fantastic Jairaj Varsani – where he is taken from his family home first to Yarmouth for a short stay and then to work in London in poverty, where we follow his transition into adulthood and status as a gentleman where it's time for Dev Patel to step in, who from that point on is on screen from pretty much the entirety of the film, bringing a charismatic performance that helps get the most out of Iannucci's passion for the characters.

Avoiding the normal trappings of a period costume drama that its ilk fall into, The Personal History of David Copperfield is lively and energetic, backed by a cast that give it their all. Peter Capaldi is so far removed from The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker as a mischievous conman Mr. Micawber that he steals every scene when he’s on screen, and Tilda Swindon adds quirkiness and eccentricity to her role as Copperfield’s aunt Betsy Trotwood, who hates donkeys on her lawn. There are a few regular cast members that Armando Iannucci reunites with from past encounters with Veep recurring actor Hugh Laurie being among one of the more high-profile names alongside Peter Capaldi as one of the most tragic characters in the entire film. Here, Laurie plays Mr. Dick, who has an emotional attachment to a long-dead king to the point where he believes that the King’s thoughts have passed onto his own.

Only with the arrival of David to the Trotwood House does Mr. Dick start to truly come alive and escape from of his shell with the help of the home’s new arrival, and it’s where the script can bring to bear one of the most heart-warming moments of the film, beautifully visualised in a way that almost benefits from having Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield feel already tailor made for an adaption, with there being no coincidence that so many of his works have been adapted in the past, with the novel itself being adapted over ten times in film and television, and although The Personal History of David Copperfield feels like a radical departure from Iannucci’s previous work, he is able to use his knowledge gained from the mastery of the genre of tragic comedy to great effect.

The elements of humour help make this film come alive and the film expands on some of the often overlooked moments from the novel when it comes to various adaptions, and Iannucci has a lot of fun for example not only in scenes where Copperfield falls head over heels in love for the first time and he sees people, objects and buildings turn into drawn portraits of the girl he likes, but also on scenes where he parties with his friends, crashing live theatre performances in the process.

The casting for pretty much every character is spot on. Tilda Swinton and Gwendoline Christie both bring added eccentricity to their roles with Christie always striking an intimidating presence in Copperfield’s life from a young age as Jane Murdstone, whilst Swinton in turn offers a much needed respite for David from the harsh environment of his youth, where he was doomed to be hated by Jane the moment that he was born a boy rather than girl. Iannucci succeeds in making every single character memorable, even the minor side characters, and gives them all a sense of vibrancy. It’s clear to see why Copperfield remembers them all, and these rich portrayals won’t leave your head easily too.

Not as uptight or as aloof as some past Dickens dramas, Iannucci’s latest maintains some elements of humour that come from his mastery of the tragic comedy that he continues to build upon to perfection. The casting decision of Tilda Swindon and Gwendoline Christie as sisters feels like a match made in heaven, and Ianucci gets across what makes all these characters memorable and shows how they stand out in David’s life, leaving an impression for good or ill. Ben Whishaw as the cunning Uriah Heep, Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield, Morfydd Clark as Dora Spenlow (who always brings her dog with her) and Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield, are among the more memorable figures in the film, with strong roles that Iannucci is able to utilise to full effect, and the actors – even when they’re in the background of scenes – shine.

The film itself is a reflective look back on life and if there is perhaps one main weakness to it the story feels rushed not only at the start but also towards the end when the tension rapidly escalates, but what’s in the middle is largely beautiful and where the film is at its strongest. Standout scenes from the film included Copperfield’s return to his childhood Holiday home in Yarmouth where he finds that it’s not always best to go back to places where you’ve been before, with things almost going wrong from the second he sets foot back there (the house is smaller than he remembered, illustrated with darker and greyer colours). In addition to key scenes that left an impression on the audience, one of the more inventive sides to The Personal History of David Copperfield is that refreshingly, the film manages to feature minimal usage of CGI and special effects, instead relying on practical designs and camera wizardry to bring the world of Dickensian London to life in a way that - thanks to how smartly the novel has been adapted by all involved, still feels very relevant today.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is airing at the London Film Festival in October ahead of its UK release in early 2020 and you can watch a trailer for the film here.

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