The Personal History of David Copperfield, 2020.
Directed by Armando Iannucci.
Starring Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie, Hugh Laurie, Anthony Welsh, Aneurin Barnard, Divian Ladwa, Rosalind Eleazar, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Daisy May Cooper, Sophie McShera, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aimée Kelly, Bronagh Gallagher, Ruby Bentall, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Cottle, Peter Singh, Lynn Hunter, and Darren Boyd.
A modern take on Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a young orphan who is able to triumph over many obstacles.
Armando Iannucci is challenging himself in at least three ways by adapting Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical book The Personal History of David Copperfield into a film. Starting with the obvious, his brand of cynical and razor-sharp political satire is a step out of his comfort zone, especially given that more often than not this film is actually downplaying the depressing elements and attaching them with lighthearted humor and optimism. Then there’s getting over the hurdle of making familiar material stand out, something that Iannucci and frequent screenwriting collaborator Simon Blackwell solve with visual creativity (there are a number of scene transitions and wise editing techniques that ensure the blistering pacing is also tight) and the combination of quirky dialogue and slapstick humor. To condense the 600-page novel into something more compact without sacrificing major plot beats and keeping the proceedings coherent also takes a great deal of confidence on behalf of the filmmakers.
It’s not an out-of-this-world success that will be remembered, awards season outside of the colorful costume design (although given the current state of the ongoing health crisis, there is a possibility that Tilda Swinton or Hugh Laurie is supporting nominations for their roles and is not entirely impossible that star Dev Patel is left out of the conversation for Best Actor), but the movie is everything from charming, silly, energetic, playful, and creative when it comes to showcasing the artistic process of an aspiring writer. It’s certainly the loudest and most frenetic biopic in quite some time, which is a compliment here.
Yes, Dev Patel is David Copperfield, heading a highly diverse cast which is refreshing for 19th-century biopics, and perhaps more than anything is what immediately gets the point across that Armando Iannucci is making something hip rather than stuffy. He’s also great in the role (as are his child actor counterparts for the younger years), setting the level of energy and charisma hoping the rest of the ensemble can keep up. Of course, they do because the cast here is outstanding, ranging from reliable British names like Peter Capaldi to rising stars like Gwendoline Christie.
Realistically, an ensemble this talented is necessary considering the film doesn’t just start with the birth of David Copperfield (who breaks the fourth wall and is present for his own birth) and then chronicle his rags to riches story, but introduces a plethora of supporting characters along the way that do everything from altering the course of his life to inspire him. The narrative requires actors that can quickly make their mark with little screen time while also matching Dev Patel’s energy. There’s not much to latch onto emotionally here, and that’s also not the point; it’s about telling the story and having fun in the process.
It’s also admirable how Armando Iannucci handles the serious situations that do arise (at its core, The Personal History of David Copperfield is still a movie about a destitute orphan finding his identity and purpose in life). Everything from child abuse to violence against women comes up, is treated with respect, but is also presented with a family-friendly flair and slapstick physicality that also feels right out of a silent movie. At one point, the film actually does take on a silent film presentation quite literally, making for one of the most amusing segments of the film. There is everything from jokes about young love to characters demonstrating forgiveness in complicated situations, all while the movie never loses its sense of fun. It’s here to enlighten and entertain, and never strays too far from doing that.
That doesn’t mean the story is perfect, it’s far from that. The Personal History of David Copperfield sees the boy moved to about three different homes within the first 30 minutes, to give you an idea of how fast-paced this narrative is. None of the supporting players are fully realized as characters, which is why just about all of the actors are of the variety that can be likable in anything. They are more machinations to push the life of David Copperfield into different directions and quirky individuals meant to give him material more than actual characters. When you have Hugh Laurie playing a dimwitted man that takes statements a little too literally who also happens to be slightly cuckoo, those are also things that can be gotten away with. The Personal History of David Copperfield is uplifting and breezy like flying a kite.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com