Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Review: The Personal History Of David Copperfield

The Personal History Of David Copperfield
Cert: PG / 119 mins / Dir. Armando Iannucci / Trailer

A disclaimer. I haven't read Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Also, I haven't watched any television, film or stage adaptations of David Copperfield. There's no agenda behind that, it's just the way these things fall. I've heard of it obviously, but the only Dickens I'm reasonably familiar with is A Christmas Carol, and even then it's only because some new adaptation is filmed almost every year. And it's not like I employ the same level of reverse-snobbery for his work as I do with Shakespeare's material.

So when I went to see Armando Iannucci's The Personal History Of David Copperfield this evening, I did so because I like its cast, I like Armando Iannucci and I trust them all to make an entertaining retooling of a thing I'm not familiar with in the slightest. This review is of the thing I just watched, not the thing I was expecting or the thing I was necessarily wanting it to be. And with all that in mind, this will either be the exactly the viewpoint you're after or the last opinion you want to read. Either way, you're very welcome...


And what a delight it turns out to be. By definition of the material alone it's a far more jolly ride than Iannucci's previous cinematic outing, as he works Dickens' classic into a sprawling comedy of manners with tight scripting and sharp performances to match. Opening with a theatrical framing device, the whole thing has an air of knowing artifice, yet never waivers in its conviction. The film is energetic without tipping over into the chaotic, stagey without being forced. sumptuous without feeling stuffy.

Although Iannucci runs a wide social gamut of Victorian England, the grime of that era (in this story's settings) is barely present. Yet there's a detailed richness to the production design letting the audience know this is an aesthetic choice rather than a time or cost-saving measure. David Copperfield looks, and feels, gorgeous.


The cast are as superb as you'd hope. Dev Patel shines as always in the eponymous role, as does Jairaj Varsani as the younger Copperfield. At the film's height (and especially with Tilda Swinton involved), there's an almost Coen-esque farce going on, and it even begins to approach the claustrophobia and nightmare-logic of Aronofsky's mother! as reality becomes blurred and we're once again reminded of the narrated performance structure.

David Copperfield is a whistle-stop tour of a big-old book, and the two-hour runtime feels optimistically cramped in some places, while there are entire sections of the hero's life that would clearly benefit from a full, serialised adaptation for a more emotional connection. I'm reliably informed that some key story-elements have been altered here, although as this is the director's re-imagining of the saga, that's absolutely permissible*1. That Iannucci keeps masterful control of the whole thing is a credit to his dedication and enthusiasm for the source-text.


This is a timely companion-piece with Greta Gerwig's Little Women, both stylised adaptations of stories from the mid 1800s which are just as engaging for audiences today. Gerwig's film has more to say of course, but both channel the stunning vision of their writer/directors.

David Copperfield is snappy, stylised and consistently funny. But it's also a bit of a confection, almost a curiosity, and despite its period-setting this version won't be for everybody. Which is probably a large part of why I enjoyed it so much.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If it's your bag, certainly.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
This should certainly be near the top of everyone's CVs for the foreseeable future.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Quite possibly.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Captain Phasma and Captain Madakor are in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 More 'strict' adaptations of David Copperfield already exist and will no doubt be made in the future. Think of this as the Dickensian equivalent of Cumberbatch's 'accompaniment' Sherlock Holmes, rather than Jeremy Brett's more canonical interpretation (even though this version of Copperfield is still set in its original time period). [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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