The Personal History of David Copperfield

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Personal History of David Copperfield
dir Armando Iannucci
prd Armando Iannucci, Kevin Loader
scr Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci
with Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Aneurin Barnard, Gwendoline Christie, Jairaj Varsani, Benedict Wong, Darren Boyd
release UK 10.Jan.20
19/UK 1h59

swinton whishaw clark
london film fest

patel, eleazar and laurie
After taking on Russian history with The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci turns to Charles Dickens with this elaborately funny and relatively faithful adaptation. Of course, the film is laced with the filmmaker's usual quick-fire wit and engagingly ridiculous characters, but it also maintains an undercurrent of deep sadness in its timely tale of income inequality and social injustice. With a mostly happy ending, naturally.
The happy, curious David (Varsani) finds his life drastically changed when his new stepfather (Boyd) sends him to a London workhouse. He grows up (now Patel) with the perpetually in-debt Micawber (Capaldi) before fleeing to his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Swinson). She sends him to private school, where he befriends James (Barnard) and secures a job in the city with Wickfield (Wong). He also falls in love with The airhead Dora (Clark), while Wickfield,s sharp daughter Agnes (Eleazar) watches jealously. Then Wickfield's evil clerk Heep (Whishaw) sends him to the poorhouse in an act of revenge.
The rise and fall in David's fortunes is played beautifully, with a generous dose of character-based comedy offering hilarious dialog and nutty behaviour. And since everything moves at a rapid pace, the film has wild mood swings, often shifting dramatically from the beginning of a line of dialog to the end of it. Some of this is skilfully orchestrated, but it's also jarring, never quite settling down to dig very deeply into the big themes that flood each scene.

In a demanding, complex role, Patel more than keeps up with the shifting tones, creating a lovely character who smoothly traverses the story's starts and stops. He's bright and likeable, creative and funny. The people around him are hilariously entertaining, and usually not nearly as bright. Swinton is an expect scene-stealer on top form, as is Laurie as her mentally unbalanced cousin Mr Dick. Capaldi also shines in a complex role. And Whishaw is a standout as the snivelling Heep, a wounded dog who still has his bite.

Visually, Iannucci echoes Gilliam and Gondry in the way he uses clever in-camera trickery to create flashbacks and transitions, as David recounts his own story. His approach to the story isn't quite as light-hearted as it seems, as he never forgets the human tragedy in each situation. And it's also refreshingly free of cynicism, even though the story's more satirical elements come through loud and clear. But perhaps a more pared-down narrative would have had a stronger focus.

cert pg themes, violence 2.Oct.19 lff

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall