"The Personal History of David Copperfield" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Armando Iannucci
Co-written by Simon Blackwell (based on book by Charles Dickens)
Starring Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton

‘A Delightful Dickens Adaptation’

When it comes to the most celebrated novelists of the 19th Century, nobody beats Charles Dickens. Ever since he rose to prominence in the 1800’s, Dickens has proven to be one of the most renowned English writers in the world. With their contemporary themes of poverty, class conflict and identity development, his books are held in the highest regard today. Perhaps, Dickens’ most treasured literary work is his eighth novel “David Copperfield”. It is one of those books that is so admired that it has been adapted to the big-screen eight times. Each adaptation has offered a fresh interpretation of the source material.

Now, Armando Iannucci brings the beloved tale to the big-screen in his latest film “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. The ninth rendition is a buoyant, funny and heartfelt film that puts a modern twist on the source material. With his third feature, writer/director Armando Iannucci has crafted a sublime adaptation of the literary classic. Packed with captivating visuals, gorgeous production values and terrific performances, it is a highly effective adaptation. Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is slightly rushed, and suffers from a formulaic conclusion. Nonetheless, it offers joyous entertainment that fans of Charles Dickens won’t be able to resist.

Set in 19th Century England, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” chronicles the life of an orphan and his journey to become a writer. Dev Patel stars in the titular role as David Copperfield, a renowned author that recounts his troubled childhood. Raised by an abusive stepfather, David is forced to work in a factory as a child. However, David’s life forever changes when his wealthy aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) offers to adopt him and finance his career as a writer. As David gains financial support, he becomes determined to fulfill his dreams.

It’s a classic coming-of-age story that is expertly told by writer/director Armando Iannucci. Iannucci is an eminent satirist that is best known for his scathing political satires (ex. 2017’s “The Death of Stalin”). “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, however, marks his first literary adaptation and foray into the world of Charles Dickens. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to bring the beloved literature of Charles Dickens to the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Iannucci draws viewers into the life of a struggling writer in the 19th Century. From intimate close-ups to breathtaking wide-angle shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s period setting. Working alongside cinematographer Zac Nicholson, Iannucci creates a stunning film in which each frame is an opulent feast for the eyes. Iannucci excels at immersing viewers into the world of a poverty-stricken orphan in the 19th Century, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If Charles Dickens’ literature does not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most impressive production values that you’ll ever see in a literary adaptation. The sets, period costumes and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Iannucci proves to be an expert at designing the costumes for his film. Assisted by costume-designers Suzie Harman & Robert Worley, Iannucci creates ravishing costumes that bring out the personalities of characters. For instance, David Copperfield’s wide range of elaborate clothes showcase his character development throughout the movie. The meticulously crafted costumes illustrate David’s transformation from an impoverished orphan into a respected writer. Moreover, the musical score is also worthy of appreciation. Christopher Willis’ classical score is highly effective. It gives the film a jovial and upbeat atmosphere that is missing from most literary adaptations. Through phenomenal production values, Iannucci keeps viewers engrossed in the whimsical world of Charles Dickens.

In terms of acting, the entire cast is at the top of its game. Iannucci’s decision to employ color-blind casting has proven controversial, but it works tremendously. In a diverse ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.

Dev Patel delivers one of the best performances of his career as David Copperfield. Patel has spent most of his career playing traumatized men in serious dramas. With “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, however, he takes on his most comical role to date. It is not easy to portray a beloved literary character in the 19th Century. It’s a challenging role that requires a certain degree of commitment. However, Patel pulls it off effortlessly. With enchanting expressions, he captures the curiosity, desperation and endearing persona of an orphan that yearns to be loved. It’s a marvelous performance from one of the most seasoned actors working today.

The supporting cast is stellar and also worthy of recognition. Tilda Swinton is terrific and brings irresistible slapstick comedy to the movie as David’s donkey-phobic aunt Betsey Trotwood. Hugh Laurie is absolutely hilarious and imbues shades of humanity into the mentally unstable Mr. Dick. And finally, it is hard to not mention Ben Whishaw. As the treacherous villain Uriah Heep, he brings an air of menace to the movie.

Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is undeniably an astonishing literary adaptation, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the pacing department. The film moves at a hurried pace that skims over crucial events in the book. Iannucci’s decision to cram the 600-page book into a two hour film is bold and ambitious, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the viewing experience and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Moreover, the film suffers from a formulaic conclusion. After constantly surprising viewers for two hours, Iannucci concludes the movie on a predictable note. It’s an overly sentimental finale that isn’t entirely effective at bringing the film to a satisfying closure. Charles Dickens adaptations thrive based on the power of their endings, and in this regard “The Personal History of David Copperfield” falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a movie that may not appeal to everyone. Given its rushed storytelling, it may not please newcomers to Charles Dickens. The film is primarily targeted towards fans of Charles Dickens’ book. Viewers that have not read the book will find it hard to follow the complicated narrative. Due to its inaccessible story, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is one of those films that may not satisfy mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of Charles Dickens will definitely enjoy “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and so will movie-goers seeking old-fashioned entertainment. A remarkable reinvention of the classic novel, it proves that Charles Dickens’ literature is worthy of cinematic treatment. At a time when modern audiences seem to have forgotten Charles Dickens, it’s a stirring reminder that his enduring stories are worth retelling on the big-screen.

3.5/5 stars

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