The 400-Word Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

By Sean Collier

August 29, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield

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Armando Iannucci, primarily a skilled satirist of modern politics, probably wanted a break.

His first feature work after his seasons as the showrunner on “Veep,” which he created, was only different from that series in its hemisphere. “The Death of Stalin” was also a takedown of government buffoonery and political backstabbing, trading modern Washington for mid-century Moscow; it was effective, certainly, but felt more like a curiosity than a career evolution.

So, it seems, Iannucci picked the thickest classic novel on his shelf and set out to see what he could do with it.

Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” is a novel far removed from the halls of power. Tracing the up-and-down life of the title character, born to a loving mother and doting nanny but swiftly sent away by a cruel, interloping stepfather, the book is as notable for its memorable cast of characters as it is for its massive length. (The Penguin Classics edition crosses the 1,000-page threshold.)

Iannucci’s film, “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” is inevitably something of an abbreviation; thankfully, he does not make us sit through a marathon, hitting the highlights of Copperfield’s life in an even two hours.


In this “David Copperfield,” Iannucci and Dickens are having a constant tug of war. Ianucci is able to inject a great deal of wry, immaculately timed humor into the proceedings, but can’t quite wrestle the tale away from Dickensian sentimentality. The book, meanwhile, is certainly able to ground Ianucci and lead him to more fully realized characters; Dickens’ novel cannot, however, fully divorce Iannucci from the rapid-fire story switching of his television work.

This struggle is, at times, an obstacle — but ultimately a benefit. Iannucci’s wit prevents the proceedings from getting too dry; he clearly has a great deal of affection for the title character, however, making this a touchingly earnest project from such a famously cynical creator.

I’ve focused too much on Iannucci, however, when the cast provides the film’s verve. As Copperfield, Dev Patel is endlessly charming; it’s as confident and assured a role as he’s offered in his still-young career. There are more fine performances here than I could name (with nods to Daisy May Cooper, Peter Capaldi and Rosalind Eleazar), but the duo of Tilda Swinton (as Betsey Trotwood, Copperfield’s donkey-hating aunt) and Hugh Laurie (as Mr. Dick, the kite-flying clouded intellect) are more than worth the price of admission.

My Rating: 8/10

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is now playing in theaters.



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