The Personal History of David Copperfield

Something will turn up: Dev Patel in David Copperfield
Verdict: 8/10 Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens is refreshingly whimsical - even if it might frustrate some purists.
Release Date: 
Friday, January 24, 2020
Written by: 

Starring Dev Patel, Armando Iannucci's latest film re-imagines Charles Dickens's classic work.


Armando Iannucci is best known for his scabrous satire, both on TV and the big screen.

But the creator of The Thick of It and Veep has now turned his hand to drama with The Personal History of David Copperfield, an adaptation of what is often said to be Charles Dickens's masterpiece.

This is not, however, a traditional version, as is clear from the choice of Dev Patel for the title role - a piece of colourblind casting that reflects Iannucci's decision to set his film in a stylised rather than an authentic version of Victorian Britain.

There are none of the dull browns and greys that usually feature in traditionally told adaptations of the novelist's work - and a witty script that, like the original book and as a nod to some of the novel's semi-autobiographical episodes, places David as the author of his own story - starting with him beginning to tell the tale in a promotional event at a theatre.

David (played as a child by Jairaj Varsani) starts life in a setting of blameless bourgeois domesticity, loved by his mother Clara (Morfydd Clark), and doted on by their maid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper).

As in many of Dickens's novels though, his idyllic life, which includes fun-filled trips to visit Peggotty's family in Great Yarmouth, is more precarious than thought.

He becomes broken when Clara marries the stern Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who moves in with his stone-faced sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) and beats David, before sending him off to work in the tyrannical Mr. Creakle's bottling factory - a change and condensing of the book - in which Creakle is a cruel early headmaster.

There he lives with the eccentric and near-destitute Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his large family.

It's an existence that doesn't match his romantic hopes as a child, and one that becomes unbearable after he is informed that his mother has died.

Yet, running off to live with his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) results in another profound change in his circumstances - as his aunt's wealth helps him to receive an education.


Iannucci and his regular co-writer Simon Blackwell have packed the script with their regular wit, although without its usual satirical bite, giving a cast that also includes Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, and Paul Whitehouse plenty to chew on in roles they perform with relish.

Aneurin Barnard and Rosalind Eleazar also deliver memorable turns as David's rakish pal Steerforth, and some-time object of David's affections Agnes Wickfield, while Ben Whishaw is perfectly cast as oily villain Uriah Heep.

The Death of Stalin director also employs fantastical sequences, like a Monty Python-esque hand ripping David from his holiday in Yarmouth back to the clutches of the Murdstone family, that are used to create the impression of a fluid tale that's being written as we watch.

If there's one criticism though, it's that his and Blackstone's choices, which skate over or alter some of the darker aspects of the book, mean that there's not quite enough meat for purists.

As a result, and the fact that they whizz through the material and plot at breakneck speed, one doesn't quite receive the emotional gut punches you should get in some parts of the story.

But, that said, with so many of Dickens's adaptations focusing on the bleaker aspects of his social commentary, Iannucci's whimsical take is refreshing - and a healthy reminder that the great author's writing contained large dollops of humour amid its depictions of the less forgiving aspects of Victorian life.

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