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The Personal History of David Copperfield

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Photograph: FilmNation Entertainment

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.

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf

Release Details

  • Rated:PG
  • Release date:Tuesday 27 August 2019
  • Duration:116 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Armando Iannucci
  • Screenwriter:Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
  • Cast:
    • Dev Patel
    • Tilda Swinton
    • Hugh Laurie
    • Ben Whishaw
    • Morfydd Clark
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