The Personal History of David Copperfield

Directed By Armando Iannucci

Starring – Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie

The Plot – From birth to infancy, from adolescence to adulthood, the good-hearted David Copperfield (Patel) is surrounded by kindness, wickedness, poverty and wealth, as he meets an array of remarkable characters in Victorian England. As David sets out to be a writer, in his quest for family, friendship, romance and status, the story of his life is the most seductive tale of all.

Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence


– Spirited surroundings. This is obviously a league of rich and energetic performances led by Patel, but it’s the fine collection of chameleons who turn up occasionally throughout British television that only further strengthen the many dynamics that he’s able to bounce off of. Swinton is more meticulous than typically expected, but it’s in her calculating reserve that brings forth the same riveting captivation that we’ve come to expect from one of the best actresses currently going. Laurie is every bit as compelling as his turn in the critically acclaimed TV show “House”, but for entirely different reasons. Most of the movie’s comic muscle rests on his broad shoulders, and Hugh is happy to oblige, combining a gentle demeanor to compliment his wondering mentality which outlines childlike aspirations in an adult embodiment. As for Patel, it’s more of a physical performance, over an emotional one that had me impressed, echoing the vibrancy in herky jerky movements that earned Charlie Chaplin praise during the silent picture age of cinema. As Copperfield, Dev captures imagination and evolution candidly throughout the picture, and harvests a leading turn that Dickens himself would be roaring about.

– Fantastical production qualities. The artistic integrity that blossomed throughout the many varying set and wardrobe designs emitted a vibrancy in ambiance as wondrous as the sky, allowing us to see things with the same ambitious admiration that Copperfield had for the many people and places that influenced his memories. No two rooms of design are ever the same, preserving a rich tapestry of transfixing styles that very much echo the personalities of the people who are housed inside of them. Each room’s color pallet compliments and corresponds luxuriously with the wardrobe each actor dons, radiating a one-two combination that is the biggest factor in the film’s color coordination. Speaking of such wardrobes, the threads involved signify a lot of faithfulness to detail that preserves geographically where this film resides at all times. It maintains a consistency during the Victorian era which brings forth no shortage of three piece suits and two piece gowns that visually convey the distance between upper and lower class economics, all the while cementing the beauty of this world in between its pages.

– Progressively radical casting. One element sure to gain this movie a healthy dose of controversy is in the experimentation to its casting that breaks conventions for all of the right reasons. Dev Patel has received a lot of hate for being a tanned-skin actor portraying Dickens greatest creation, but Patel himself is a London-born actor in the same vein as the story’s titular character. Beyond him, there’s an inclusion of color in the previously established white characters that adds dimensions to the characters never seen before in any Dickens adaptation. For instance, Agnes (Played wonderfully by Rosalind Eleazar) has exceptionally more conviction towards David’s heart, which in turn brings forth no shortage of scene-stealing moments where Eleazar is able to express her fiery registry. I for one am grateful for the changes and experimentation, as these fictional characters are purely that; fictional, and don’t harm anything other than toxic fandom in their updated portrayals.

– Theatrical framing device. One of the biggest highlights for me throughout the film was this brilliantly illustrated narrative outline that immerses into the worlds of David’s mind and his writing simultaneously, all the while blurring the lines of what’s truthful to the audience at home. What’s great about this is it affords us a creative presentation that plays through many chapters that Copperfield is currently writing as we live through them. When the air of clarity becomes to cloudy between them, we are shown a fantastical event, like Copperfield’s hand blasting through a drawing, which is played out in real time before our very eyes. The rest of the movie is equally theatrical, played through with a humorous tone and overly enthused performances that really do feel authentic to a Broadway stage show, and make so much of the title “The Personal History of David Copperfield” feel so much different from any other adaptation, which mostly are only called “David Copperfield”. This feels like the most cerebral of adaptations, and a personal delve into the mind of the man who lived through it all.

– No limitations. For a movie with a surprisingly bare rating of PG, the many themes of his life are rendered in a way that makes this feel anything but. It helps that nothing creatively suffers for what we’re shown, and that David’s many brushes with childhood abuse, illegal factory work, poverty, and classification bullying are illustrated in a way that easily preserve empathy for the character, despite the times when he’s trying to be someone he so evidently is not. The material isn’t given the best chance with a tone that is too overly comedic, but there are legitimate moments in the screenplay that push the boundaries of what we’re shown, creating moments of peril that I honestly wasn’t expecting, and ones that I could’ve used more of to mirror the systematic adversity that antagonized him throughout Dickens’ novel.

– As a writer. What makes Copperfield such a rewarding protagonist, as well as an exceptional writer through the eyes of Dickens and Iannucci alike, is that in a profession where imagination is everything, he was a writer whose best material stemmed from real life. This is similar to Dickens as well, who many have since depicted the similarities between he and his adventurous protagonist, and really outlines why he was such an ahead of his time writer who was crafting life narratives long before there was a subgenre created for such writing. Aside from this, it’s the way his material translates exceptionally to modern day, adapted here in a way that everything thematically feels contemporary despite the setting feeling anything but. It proves that the best literary work translates accordingly regardless of how much we as a society change, and that David and Charles have both left their impressionable marks on a literary world that has expanded to cinema many times over.

– Collection of memories. I previously mentioned how the movie’s framing device is basically David recalling his entire life story to that moments. Where the exceptional detail is paid to such a gimmick is in the many unique touches that articulate this being told from one consistent presence. For one, the permanent personality of the dialogue is in place. This is a comical one, and one that exudes from the registries of every character, good or evil. It makes each of them more similarly structured than a narrative typically would, and is only the first detail that I noticed in this gimmick. The second is in the descriptions given towards returning to places that were a pivotal piece of Copperfield’s childhood. The boathouse in particular is mentioned to be “Much bleaker and stuffier than I previously remembered”. This is a sign of growth physically with the character, in that a place feels smaller once he has been out in the world. It adds creative touches to elements that would otherwise be overlooked, and makes this a completely immersive experience within the mind of the story’s protagonist.


– Erratic camera work. For most of Zac Nicholson’s unorthodox cinematography, I was transfixed at the way he framed landscapes, and even prescribed levity in the production’s editing technique. However, when he instills movement to the camera work, that is when the sequences feel visually overcomplicated, leaving a churning in my stomach that rarely happens in cinematic experiences. This is as a result of sharp movements that lack consistency in the context of the art direction or scene that they accompany, all the while trying to preserve complicity to scenes and sequences that should’ve been given as grounded of an approach as possible. If done a few times, I can forgive the movie’s creative process, but the constant swimmy feeling of the ground pulled out from under me constantly felt like I was watching a space exploration movie, and one that used its gimmick so frequently that it reached the point of frustrating annoyance.

– Redundantly dull. For a movie and a subject matter like David Copperfield, this should be a screenplay that grabs me immediately, and leaves me longing for more inside of this world of colorful characters and vibrant textures. Unfortunately, much of the story’s arcs are repeated so often that even at the thirty minute mark I was already tapping out to a movie that just begun. The pacing feels exceptionally rushed for the many characters and life moments that the script involves, breezing through them in a way that outlines little importance despite the film’s protagonist telling you otherwise. If the movie is going to fast-forward through so much, then a 95 minute run time should probably be the desired allowance of creativity. Otherwise, the two hours that this movie takes us through can and often does prescribe to the motto that too much of anything is never a good thing. That cements the movie’s entertainment factor to a tee.

– Too much humor. I can appreciate the movie’s lighthearted approach to its legendary title character, but its successful landing was around forty percent for me personally, and often times came off as too forced and desperate to feel genuine. In addition to this, as I previously mentioned, it deviates from the source material so drastically that it often undercuts the dramatic flare and mental stakes for the character that colorfully illustrates his evolution. Deviation in the form of characters is a great thing, but if you deviate too sharply in your script, you lose much about what made the story appealing in the first place, and that’s much of the case within the film’s irresponsibility.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

One thought on “The Personal History of David Copperfield

  1. It think it’s a ombination of my love for Charles Dickens and this review in particular that’s convinced me into watching it. I’m curious to see a film that celebrates his writing while also appealing to younger and older viewers. I appreciate a movie aimed at younger demographic that can still explore heavy themes. I will definitely watch this one. Good job. I’m curious to see Patel’s especially know that you compared it to Charlie Chaplin.

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