The Personal History of David Copperfield opens with our titular hero (Dev Patel) on a stage beginning the telling of his story with the remark, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” The lights then fade as our would-be-hero strides through a painted backdrop into the glowing greens of the English countryside; our story has begun.

This scene is indicative of the wonderfully quaint, confident, and imaginative adaptation that follows. Armando Iannucci – a writer and director who has never made anything I have disliked – along with Simon Blackwell – a writer who again has never put a foot wrong in my opinion –  perform comedic gymnastics to capture the swirling nature of Dickens’s Victorian bildungsroman. Unlike previous adaptations of the great novelist’s work, this creative team clearly does not fear the text, but instead, love it enough to be able to highlight the quirky and wonderfully chaotic elements of the source material. What is formed consequently is a jaunty and pacey film packed to the rafters with surreal charm, but one that simultaneously does not lose sight of the sentimentality present at the heart of the story.  

Joining the maybe-hero of our story on his journey from impoverished orphan to the venerated author are a plethora of terrific actors; the sheer number of recognisable names in this film would make any Wes Anderson picture feel woefully understaffed. The creative team along with casting director Sarah Crowe chose to cast the film with colour-blind inclusivity, a decision that deserves praise given the sheer volume of talent that this then opens the door to: from Benedict Wong’s superb performance as the drunkard Mr Wickfield, to Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes who plays the role with a wide-eyed optimism that earnestly invites the audience to root for her and Patel’s David’s relationship, while Nikki Amuka-Bird brings a frightful sternness to the oppressive Mrs Steerforth. There are also notable performances from Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, and Daisy May-Cooper to name a few.

However, the standout performers must be Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood and Patel as Mr Copperfield. Swinton, who is introduced with her nose pressed against a window, is a flamethrower of charisma exploiting every ounce of wit in every line she is given. Her sheer energy and snappiness, without ever veering into overacting, is a joy to behold. As for Patel, he approaches the role with a naïve, almost pathos inducing earnestness that left me unable not to root for him as he struggles to find his own identity.

All these performances when combined with the excellent and original set design, that captures how a place becomes irrevocably tied with emotions, culminates in an adaptation that is wonderfully entertaining, proficient in flitting between frenzy and sombre melancholy, and simultaneously capable of honouring the novel on which it is based whilst offering audiences something new and original.

Dir: Armando Iannucci

Scr: Armando Iannucci & Simon Blackwell

Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, and Daisy May-Cooper.

Prd: Glen Basner, Daniel Battsek, Ben Browning, Célia Duval, Peter Fellows, Armando Iannucci, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Kevin Loader, Ollie Madden

DOP: Zac Nicholson

Music: Christopher Willis

Country: Australia

Year: 2020

Run Time: 124 mins

The Personal History of David Copperfield is now available on Digital and Blu-ray and DVD.

By Greg Dimmock

Part-time English Undergraduate, full-time film buff... Maybe I made a mistake?