THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD movie poster | ©2020 Fox Searchlight

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD movie poster | ©2020 Fox Searchlight

Rating: PG
Stars: Dev Patel, Jairaj Varsani, Ranveer Jaiswal, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar, Darren Boyd, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Capaldi, Bronagh Gallagher, Daisy May Cooper, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Anna Maxwell Martin, Aneurin Barnard, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthew Cottle, Aimee Kelly, Anthony Welsh, Paul Whitehouse
Writers:
Armando Ianucci & Simon Blackwell, based on the novel DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens
Director: Armando Ianucci
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: August 28, 2020

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is, as its title suggests, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel DAVID COPPERFIELD. For those wondering about the title, first of all, it helpfully sets this new version apart from previous ones. Secondly, the full original title of Dickens’s work is THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATIONS OF DAVID COPPERFIELD THE YOUNGER OF BLUNDSTONE ROOKERY (WHICH HE NEVER MEANT TO PUBLISH ON ANY ACCOUNT).

As with the title, director Armando Ianucci and his co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell have done some condensing of DAVID COPPERFIELD’s sprawling story to get it to fit fairly neatly into a two-hour timeframe. Not to worry. THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD does an admirable job of weaving myriad plot strands and characters together into something that is not only coherent, but actually has forward momentum.

We meet David Copperfield (Dev Patel) as an adult, reading from his writings in a theater in front of an appreciative audience, much as Dickens did in reality. With the grown David as on onscreen host, we then meet little David (Ranveer Jaisal) in the loving home of his mother (Morfydd Clark).

Alas, David’s mother marries the cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who clashes with the little boy (played as a slightly older child by Jairaj Varsani). Murdstone is co-owner of a London bottle factory, and sends David away to work there. In London, David lodges with the family of the perennially broke but ever-optimistic Mr. and Mrs. Micawber (Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallager) and the brood of offspring.

David stays at the bottle factory until he is played by Patel again. A tragedy causes David to rebel, and seek out his aunt (Tilda Swinton), a wealthy eccentric who lives with her friend, the even more eccentric Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie).

There are many more people and places and situations as David’s fortunes rise and fall and rise again. The filmmakers do a deft job of whisking us around mid-nineteenth-century England, and keeping everybody more or less straight. There are clever touches, like casting Clark, earlier seen in the film as David’s mother, as the object of his affections, the sweet if none-too-bright Dora. This instantly explains what David sees in Dora, even if he doesn’t realize it himself.

Ianucci and the actors establish a tone of quizzical humor, occasionally leavened by melancholy. There’s wit and style here, as if everyone is performing in a less-subversive comedy by Oscar Wilde. Patel is a decent and intelligent center around which everyone else swirls, many of them delightfully. We root for Rosalind Eleazar’s loyal Agnes as soon as we meet her. Swinton is a powerhouse, Laurie is persuasively confused without overdoing it as the obsessive Dick, and Capaldi and Gallagher are wonderfully droll.

The production design by Cristina Casali is enchanting. A beach home, made from an upside-down boat, is especially memorable. We don’t wonder that David wants to show it off to friends.

One aspect of THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD likely to attract note is its colorblind casting. White couples have South Asian sons, East Asian fathers have Black daughters, Black mothers have white sons. Class and money are urgent matters here, and gender roles are firmly in place, but race doesn’t enter into the story at all.

For an added bit of charm, we even get picture credits – drawings of the actors in character – at the end.

Ianucci is known for his political satire, including THE THICK OF IT and VEEP. THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is complex but gentler in both matter and manner. It seems aimed at audiences with a taste for a certain type of British fare, playful without being farcical, and historical with an element of fantasy. It seems to be exactly what it sets out to be.

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