London Film Festival Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

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For those familiar with the work of Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer/director who has given the world biting, foul-mouthed satire in the form of The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin, it might come as a bit of a surprise that his latest directorial effort comes in the form of a family-friendly adaptation of a classic Charles Dickens novel, entitled The Personal History of David Copperfield.

If anyone is unfamiliar with the story of the novel David Copperfield, it essentially follows the titular character throughout his tumultuous life from birth and documents the various hardships he faces and colourful characters he meets along the way. It’s safe to say that Iannucci faithfully adapts the source material to the big screen with a real care and consideration for creating the 19th-century backdrop without the need for special effects, which certainly makes the experience all the more immersive, as the viewer really feels transported to this period of time. The production, costume and set design is absolutely fantastic and gives the cinematography a big boost just because of the way it’s been built to look, with the camera-work not a particularly strong point of the film.

Not only is the essence of the time period reproduced in the film wonderfully, but Iannucci has used casting to its full potential, which gives the film a sense of modernity that complements the period setting in a way that will allow a wide variety of audiences to potentially connect with the story and its characters. However, the telling of the story, with its episodic, rather rushed manner, does cause some issues with the pacing of the film. Of course it is never simple to bring a 900-page novel to the big screen, but this felt more like a mini-series being squeezed into a 2 hour film, where it’s middle act tends to rush itself and the film ends rather abruptly, which is a shame as the brilliance of Dickens’ writing truly allows for Iannucci to spin a yarn with this story, yet there’s still much left out which felt rather disappointing.

As previously mentioned, the casting in this film is one of its real achievements, as each character is brought to life so effortlessly by each actor that portrays them. Dev Patel is the absolute standout in the lead role, tackling David’s issues with his identity and status in such a charming, full-of-life performance that really enables the audience to get invested in the emotional weight of the story. Iannucci has stated that Patel was his only choice for the role, and from the way he handles it so naturally, it seems a perfect choice. The supporting cast is filled with great performances also, with the film boasting a stacked cast of some brilliant British actors. Daisy May Cooper is her usual hilarious self as Peggotty, the kind-hearted maid who helped raise David, as is Tilda Swinton, who as David’s Aunt Betsey, brings a real kookiness to the film in a way only she could. Ben Whishaw also does an excellent job as the conniving, snivelling Uriah Heep who causes so much plight for David and his family. However, in Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi, the best of the supporting performances are found. Laurie brings his feverish charm to the role of Mr Dick, who is able to tell the story of his mental illness respectfully whilst being a humorous and lovely character. Capaldi effortlessly balances the boyish, cockney humour of Mr Micawber with a great deal of melancholy that helps tackle some of the themes of social justice that Ianucci takes from the novel to help give it a sense of the modern and speak to audiences. It truly is a brilliantly casted film and all the better for it.

The Verdict

Although The Personal History of David Copperfield falters with its pacing and lack of ambition in its camera-work, it’s a film boosted by wonderful production values and a cast that driver the story with the emotional weight and charm it deserves. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a film this year that is more lovely and leaves you feeling more triumphant, therefore it’s easy to describe it as a must-see for every type of audience and an impressive departure from Armando Iannucci’s previous work.

Rating: 8/10

Words by Elliott Jones

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