The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2020) is a dazzling Dickensian delight.
Colourful, captivating and preposterously delightful, Armando Iannucci’s free-spirited adaptation of the Dickens novel brings a vibrant contemporary energy to the classic metronomic rags to riches to rags to riches tale.
Chronicling his turbulent upbringing, the film begins with a quintessentially Dickensian framing device as David Copperfield (Dev Patel) narrates his own life story to a packed theatre audience. From birth and childhood through his school days to his first forays into adulthood, Copperfield encounters an eclectic cast of rogues, scoundrels and eccentrics as his fortunes rise and fall and rise again. Respectful of the source novel, the adaptation still finds fresh and inventive ways to bring the story to life and though, naturally, Iannucci and cowriter Simon Blackwell find themselves drawn to the comedic potential of the text, the casting is so note-perfect that even while the film revels in a kind of mannered absurdity, the talented cast bring a depth of emotion and pathos which makes the comedy all the sweeter.
It’s one of those films where it’s almost impossible to pick your favourite performance because each reminiscence leads to another and soon everyone’s your favourite. Patel is brilliant as the titular Copperfield, managing to hold his own as everyone else tries to steal the film out from under him. Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi and Tilda Swinton are equally wonderful to watch while Ben Wishaw’s Uriah Heep is a sleazy, queasy delight as the oily and obsequiously devious ‘villain’ of the piece. But there are no small parts in this sprawling tale of a lifetime and everyone makes their mark in this exquisitely staged period dramedy.
It’s an utterly charming film, simultaneously archly affected and somehow completely authentic. The colour-blind casting is a masterstroke, robbing the story and screen of nothing and bringing a wealth of talent to the screen, with Dickens’ characters big enough to transcend such petty concerns.
It’s a perfect, irresistibly whimsical symphony of classic literature, inspired screen adaptation and wonderfully simpatico performances from a dazzling and diverse cast.