The Personal History Of David Copperfield review: this Dickens adaptation ticks every single box

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In this colourful and optimistic retelling of the Dickens classic, The Personal History Of David Copperfield follows our eponymous hero (Dev Patel) from childhood to adulthood as he navigates a tumultuous world and attempts to find his place within it. Featuring a glittering cast including Tilda Swinton and Gwendoline Christie, writer-director Armando Iannucci deftly steers a bountiful ship through chaotic waters to paint a bittersweet portrait of a man-in-the-making.

Chances are, you saw the trailer for The Personal History Of David Copperfield when you went to see Little Women. It has one of those trailers that makes you turn to your friend and give each other the nod in the cinema; the nod that says “We’ll come back for you later.”

On paper and poster, the film’s a real box-ticker: A well-thumbed Dickens novel, adapted by a mastermind of British comedy; an adventure full of colour, energy, whimsy and heart; a cast list that reads like your dream dinner party (sit me between Tilda and Gwendoline, opposite Dev, thank you).

Well we’re delighted to tell you the trailer isn’t a “Best Bits,” nor does the film rely on stars to distract us with jazz hands from a woolly story. The Personal History Of David Copperfield triumphs as magical, entertaining and utterly charming retelling of Dickens’ own favourite novel. 

Now if you’re familiar with Iannucci’s previous work (The Death Of Stalin, The Thick Of It), words like “magical” or “charming” will come as a surprise without swear words, but here we are and we’re not complaining. Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell deftly adapt all 600+ pages of David Copperfield into just two hours, and you certainly feel the breathless pace.

It’s a film that wastes no time getting going – for as soon as we’re introduced to Dev Patel’s David Copperfield, as he steps on stage to tell his life story to the waiting audience, we’re immediately transported to the scene of his birth. Setting up the whimsical visual style and magical narrative devices that’ll punctuate the rest of the film, adult David is naturally there to narrate his very entrance to the world.

And it’s in this moment that we’re also introduced to the film’s key theme of identity. When David’s aunt Betsey Trottswood (Tilda Swinton) arrives at the house to meet a bouncing baby girl, she’s positively alarmed to discover this is not the case. From the moment David arrives, he is displaced; his whole identity is one big question mark. Fortunately, Iannucci draws a big, beautiful, swirly one with a really nice pen.

He also turns the page with gale force winds. We whizz through David’s childhood and adolescence as he himself is whisked from home to houseboat to workhouse and boarding school. Along the way, we meet the people who will build him up and knock him, and he acquires nicknames like Scout badges (Trot, Daisy, Doady, Trottwood, Davidson – to name but a few.). To really hammer home the theme like it’s GCSE English, he’s often called the wrong name and even manages to introduce himself incorrectly. 

Yet as we watch David struggle to find himself, Iannucci steers this bountiful ship, beautifully designed by Cristina Casali, so masterfully and mercifully that we always keep our heads above water; it never loses its sense of place or purpose. The only time the pacing suffers is when it inevitably slows and subsequently sags in the third act.

Naturally, much of the enjoyment comes from Dickens’ characters, Iannucci’s direction and the actors’ performance. Dev Patel proves himself yet again to be endlessly watchable, playing the good-natured, open-hearted David with an honesty and sincerity that isn’t overly earnest. When playing off his often-bonkers supporting cast, he’s a strong, convincing anchor in a farce. Thankfully, David’s not just one-note and gives as good as he gets in the comedy stakes, with Dev also showing off impeccable comic timing and perfect deadpan.

There’s so much to enjoy from the supporting cast and characters, who (mostly) manage to avoid falling into archetypes. Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie couple the slapstick comedy of their larger-than-life characters with moments that are bittersweet. Meanwhile, Gwendoline Christie and Ben Whishaw are truly wicked as Jane Murdstone and Uriah Heep, at their most menacing when they’re at their most restrained. It might just put you off your marmalade sandwiches.

Unfortunately, against such strong supporting characters, both of David’s love interests end up feeling underbaked. Who will he end up with – Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) or Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark, who – hold onto your Freudian textbooks – also plays David’s mother in the earlier scenes)? Honestly, neither Eleazar nor Clark have a lot to play with here, so don’t feel bad if you just don’t care.

But then The Personal History Of David Copperfield isn’t just about romance, and so much of it was left out of the original text already. Iannucci’s retelling is literally about one person’s life and journey towards finding his identity, place and voice, as a man and as a writer. And it really does read as a flourishing, eloquent and heartfelt letter to David, to Dickens, to writers, to adventure and to our imagination.

It’s a film that makes you want to go out and buy a diary, if you don’t keep one already – for documenting those moments in life and people we meet that seem so unreal, we must give them permanence in ink, so we know we haven’t completely made them up. 

Images: Lionsgate

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