The Personal History of David Copperfield (Review) – Dickens classic finds a new voice

Placing Charles Dickens’s classic novel David Copperfield into the hands of Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) may sound rather audacious. But Iannucci’s love of all things Dickens found itself highlighted back in 2012. With the fabulous BBC documentary ‘Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens.‘ In which the writer/director explored Dickens’s work with a contemporary social eye. While equally focussing on the wit and charm inherent in Dickens writing. Therefore, A Personal History of David Copperfield, in many ways, feels like an extension of the subject matter the director explored back in 2012. Taking Dickens’s classic novel into a far more contemporary realm. While equally highlighting the humour and sublime character creations of the author. Ultimately creating a film that shines with adoration for the source material. While also allowing Dickens work to find a new voice, style, and place in modern contemporary culture.

Undaunted by the size and scope of Dickens sublime novel. Iannucci and fellow writer Simon Blackwell revel in characters over the journey. Upping the tempo of the story, with fast-paced transitions between Copperfield’s childhood and adult life. While still managing to surround each character with the utmost love and respect. Focussing the narrative of the quirks and humour of Dickens writing, while also allowing for a more modern perspective on the journey David takes. However, while this focus does diminish some of the darker tones of the Dickens novel. It would also be true to say that it enables a fresh perspective on a long honoured story. While equally bringing Dickens work to a new audience through casting choices that embrace the diversity and creativity of modern British society.

The result of this fresh take on Dickens is energetic, vibrant, funny and tender filmmaking. Paying homage to the author and his character development. While equally charting a new course that enables both newcomers and fans to jump on board. And much of the success in achieving this sits with the superb casting choices of Armando Iannucci and Sarah Crowe. Casting that includes a who’s who of British dramatic talent, led by the engaging and sincere Dev Patel (Lion). An actor who continues to show his innate ability to lead a diverse and highly talented ensemble cast. While standout performances also come via Ben Whishaw as the creepy Uriah Heep. Tilda Swinton as the eccentric donkey-bothering Aunt Betsey. Hugh Laurie as the charming, sweet and innocent Mr Dick. Peter Capaldi as the debt dodging Mr Micawber, and the slightly dizzy Dora played by Morfydd Clark.

Peter Capaldi, Dev Patel and Aneurin Barnard star in The Personal History of David Copperfield ©️Film 4 Productions / Filmnation and Lionsgate 2020

However, this is a film that thrives on every character and every performance. With a plethora of performers shining on the screen, from Aneurin Barnard to Benedict Wong, Daisy May Cooper and Rosalind Eleazar. And in many ways, it is the films brilliant and versatile ensemble cast that brings The Personal History of David Copperfield to life in glorious technicolour. Alongside a colour blind casting process, that speaks to talent rather than ethnicity. While also placing a Victorian novel into the bright and vibrant, cultural diversity of modern Britain.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is not the first film to paint Dickens literature with a lighter brush. Just look at the extraordinarily popular A Muppet Christmas Carol or Carol Reed’s 1968 version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver. But unlike both of these and the numerous TV adaptations, Iannucci’s vision feels almost dreamlike in places. Honouring the genius of Charles Dickens just as much as the story he created. And while it could be argued that by removing some of the darkness of Copperfield, the campaigning essence of the story is lost. This is a film that also shines a bright light on the characters of Dickens world. While surrounding this with vivid colour, zingy editing and a glorious score by Christopher Willis. Ultimately providing a joyous, tender and loving adaptation that would have Dickens smiling with approval.

Director:  Armando Iannucci

Cast:  Dev PatelHugh LaurieTilda Swinton, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Hugh Laurie, Paul Whitehouse, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Jairaj Varsani, Rosalind Eleazar

Actors appearing in The Personal Life of David Copperfield also appear in…

Little Joe

Saint Maud

Dracula (TV Series)


The Goldfinch

Avengers Endgame

The Souvenir