Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (2019)

Co-writer/director Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ popular book stars Dev Patel in the titular role and tells the story of his life, showing how he alternates between rags and riches and strives for the life of a gentleman, encountering many friends and foes along the way, including his eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), the well meaning but dim Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), the perpetually in debt Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), and the schemimg Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw).

Despite holding a certain admiration for the works of Charles Dickens, having enjoyed several film/TV adaptations of his great works and being well aware of how wonderful, colourful and expressive his writing can be (though when it comes to his books, I have to admit that I’ve only read A Christmas Carol and just over half of Great Expectations), I didn’t know anything about the plot or characters of David Copperfield when going into the film – I only had a vague recollection of the opening few lines and the knowledge that he was born on a Friday! But with The Personal History of David Copperfield, the latest adaptation of one of the great author’s beloved works, Armando Iannucci has done a wonderful job in adapting the novel for the big screen and it was a pleasure to learn about the characters and to join the main character on his voyage of self discovery for the very first time.

David Copperfield contains the same themes and a similar story to Great Expectations in that it follows our main character as he strives to achieve a higher social standing, meeting several very different characters on the way, but as he becomes more of a gentleman, we see how the pursuit of affluence corrupts him somewhat and he turns into a bit of a snob and runs the risk of forgetting his values and where he comes from; this forms the foundation of a very strong story and it’s always interesting to watch David navigate his way through differing circumstances, experiencing a childhood spent in an upturned boat in the company of a particularly loving family but then suffering the wrath of a new stepfather and a hard life in a bottling plant, going on to find a more privileged lifestyle but then losing it all again. Despite apparently covering the events of a very long book, the story is told very coherently and there’s very rarely a lull in the action – events are consistently wonderful and worthwhile to witness and the script is particularly strong as it stays true to the classic Dickensian storytelling – with its commentary on class and societal standing and its variety of colourful characters and escapades – but Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell give it plenty of added humour that modern audiences will surely appreciate and additionally, there is so much heart and warm feeling to be found within the story, which makes it particularly different from the satirical and biting nature of The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin! The script also succeeds as it shows a clear love and appreciation for Dickens’ style of writing and his fun way with words by purposefully highlighting some of the more memorable passages, phrases and character descriptions and the film has David write all of these down on scraps of paper and they appear again during the closing credits, cleverly put next to the names of cast members.

Iannucci’s direction also helps to give the film life and to differentiate it from other Dickens adaptations because he employs several unique flourishes and inventive directorial decisions to make the film more interesting, such as the framing device that sees David recite his story to an audience before entering the story himself, standing amongst the characters like the Ghost of Christmas Past, and later on we witness a giant hand reaching down and destroying his childhood happiness and certain characters go on to break the fourth wall by questioning their place within his story; Iannucci clearly knows what he’s doing and under his stewardship, the film stands out from similar adaptations thanks to its admirable energy, perpetual humour that hits the mark so much of the time, and those individual touches that shake the film up a bit and make it that little bit more unique and inventive. The film also deserves praise for its production design, costumes and hair/makeup because Personal History is always visually appealing and it treats us to several different locations that we quickly get used to and which feel lived-in, so much of the film is pleasingly bright and colourful, and all the different costumes and hairstyles are lovely to behold.

The film also has a terrific ensemble cast and, as others have already noted, the filmmakers have here employed “colourblind casting” and this is another reason as to why the film stands out from all the other Dickensian adaptations. In the eponymous role, Dev Patel is really quite wonderful as he makes David such a likeable, endearing and memorable character and he finds himself completely at ease with the material, proving himself to be perfectly funny in the comedic scenes (especially when he impersonates some of the other characters) while also being adept in the more serious moments and in supporting roles, Tilda Swinton is expectedly wonderful as David’s eccentric aunt and it’s great to see that although she’s a bit of a card, she never goes over the top or overplays the weirdness of the character, Hugh Laurie is in his element as the “nice but dim” Mr. Dick (a character he has apparently perfected with shows like Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster) and he brings an ideal amount of humour and heart to the role, Peter Capaldi enjoys one of his greatest roles for some time as the forever indebted Mr. Micawber, being perfectly funny but also letting us see the tragic nature of the perpetually financially struggling character, and Ben Wishaw is ideally slimy and weird as the scheming and parasitic Uriah Heep, providing much trouble for David as his own pursuit of wealth and class threatens to expose David’s low background and hinder his aspirations for gentlemanhood. In addition, Benedict Wong is a real treat as the constantly soused financier Mr. Wickfield, Paul Whitehouse, Daisy May Cooper, Anthony Welsh and Aimée Kelly all provide a lot of heart as members of the Peggotty family, Rosalind Eleazar is strong as the independently minded Agnes, Jairaj Varsini is remarkably talented and affable as young David, and my old youth theatre chum Aneurin Barnard savours one of his meatiest roles yet and is excellent as David’s close friend James Steerforth. Soooooo not jealous that he’s done so well. Not at all.

A consistently entertaining, humorous, good natured and engrossing literary adaptation with a very strong script, inventive direction, appealing design, a uniformly excellent cast, and a clear understanding and deep appreciation for the words of Charles Dickens.

★ ★ ★ ★