The Personal History of David Copperfield

Film, Comedy Now showing
3 out of 5 stars
2 out of 5 stars
(1user review)
The Personal History of David Copperfield

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Charles Dickens comes to life in a vibrant adaptation that feels like a holiday for director Armando Iannucci.

It’s valuable, I suppose, when a filmmaker ‘discovers’ the novels of Charles Dickens to be so much funnier, fresher and more modern than assumed. But is it churlish to wish that the discovery had been made by anyone but director Armando Iannucci? The tart tongue behind HBO’s ‘Veep’ (as well as the verbally vicious features ‘In the Loop’ and ‘The Death of Stalin’), Iannucci tailors reams of well-deployed profanity into pure euphoria. Politically, he’s necessary in our fury-driven moment. ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’, meanwhile, has no swearing. It shows him growing as a visual stylist; he’s claiming gentler territory for his dialogue to roam. But Iannucci’s new movie works best when it’s hinting at the rudeness he has better explored elsewhere.

On brightly lit lawns captured by cockeyed Terry Gilliam-esque camera angles, the film comes to fizzy, jaunty life – nearly all of Iannucci’s aggression has been squeezed into storyboarding. You can’t help but be charmed by Dev Patel’s title character: a floppy-haired bounder on his affably confused way to becoming a boyfriend, a proctor and a grown-up (though not in that order). Iannucci’s color-blind casting, which also gives major roles to Nikki Amuka-Bird, Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazar, never insists on being noticed; rather, everyone launches into their bits agreeably and only Christopher Willis’s manic orchestral score seems to be elbowing for room. Occasionally Patel narrates, or watches on, slyly, as he is born (Michael Winterbottom did this gag better in his radically exploded 2005 take on ‘Tristram Shandy’, a better version of this experiment).

Still, for all the service paid to Dickens’s interweaving plot curlicues (Iannucci and co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell do an elegant job eliding them from their expansive 1850 form), you’re still waiting for those occasional flashes of savagery. They come via Tilda Swinton, riotously uptight as David’s aunt Betsey, and Gwendoline Christie, who outdoes her entire stretch on Game of Thrones with one juicy takedown, a classic of passive-aggressive well-wishing. Villainous Uriah Heep (a hunched, tortured Ben Whishaw) has been somewhat demoted in this version; instead, the movie places keener emphasis on the difficulty – and absurd glories – of becoming a writer. Scribbling on paper is the final sound we hear. ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ feels, to a large degree, like a writer’s stunt. If you’re in a mildly irreverent mood (like Iannucci himself), you won’t complain too loudly about that.


Release details

Release date:
Tuesday August 27 2019
116 mins

Cast and crew

Armando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
Dev Patel
Tilda Swinton
Hugh Laurie
Ben Whishaw
Morfydd Clark

Users say (1)

2 out of 5 stars
2 people listening

Never been a big Dickens film enthusiast - apart from David Leans’s brilliant 1946 adaptation of “Great Expectations”. But that was a gritty, monochrome story that stuck to the author’s aims to great effect.

Director Armando Iannucci’s TV work has been massively successful but his last movie, “The Death of Stalin” was awful, depending on well-worn cliches, toilet gags and obscene language.

This one is an odd mixture of bright comedy featuring some of the cream of British acting. It delves back and forth with all sorts of surrealist tricks

Peter Capaldi as Micawber turns in a great performance, as does Dev Patel as the principal character. His asian ethnicity doesn’t detract from reality too much but some of the other principal characters - Chinese, black and asian, are to me uncomfortably at odds with the reality of early Victorian England.

The UK is a multi-ethnic nation now but it wasn’t then. However, Iannucci has chosen that path in his casting and that’s his decision.

This cinemagoer was unimpressed and, at some points thoroughly bored, but the film will probably be a massive feel-good hit and box-office success!