Film Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

STUDIO: Searchlight | DIRECTOR: Armando Iannucci | CAST: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Morfydd Clark, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw
RELEASE DATE: Aug. 28, 2020
SPECS: PG | 119 min. | Comedy drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 3Dishes.jpg (40×13)

Armando Iannucci, the British filmmaker who gave us In the Loop, HBO’s VEEP and The Death of Stalin, steers away from politics by tackling Charles Dickens’ classic The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, which he has cheerily shortened to The Personal History of David Copperfield. The story, of course, has been filmed many times before, dating back to a silent version in 1911 and including a 1935 MGM/David O. Selznick version helmed by George Cukor and featuring W.C. Fields. As expected, though, Iannucci’s approach is something completely different.

Light on its feet, colorful, and boasting superb colorblind casting headlined by Dev Patel (The Wedding Guest) in the title role, the story chronicles the highs and lows of Copperfield, who ricochets from bad fortune to good, then back again, in Victorian England.  Along the way, the character is raised by his mother and housekeeper after his father dies, is sent to live with relatives by his demanding stepfather, lands in a boarding school, works in an oppressive factory, befriends his sneaky landlord, finds himself betrayed and attempts to settle down with a young woman in an tragically ill-fated relationship.

There’s a lot to pack into any screen version of the story: prior TV versions clocked in at over three hours and even the streamlined 1935 movie ran for more than two hours. Here, Iannucci breezily crams everything into two hours. The style is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film with its perfectly calibrated color schemes. There is also impeccable period-perfect production design and a parade of Anderson-esque quirky characters limned by quirky actors who encounter Copperfield (played ebulliently by Patel). Make way, then, for nifty work by Tilda Swinton (The Man From London), Hugh Laurie (TV’s House), Peter Capaldi (TV’s The Thick of It), also by Iannucci) and Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) in key supporting turns.

Alas, something appears missing here. The offbeat humor of the director’s previous work is prevalent throughout, but there’s little of Iannucci’s satiric bite on display. The film also appears rushed, and its dramatic points are muted, perhaps because of attempts to cram so much into its running time. A heavier foot on the pedal in the allegorical department would have helped.

The Personal History of David Copperfield, which was released in England in January, opens in select theaters on today and will be available on streaming platforms and DVD and Blu-ray at a later date.


About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.