Toronto 2019: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers.

The Personal History of David Copperfield gives viewers the first adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel in almost 20 years.

We first meet David Copperfield (Dev Patel) as an adult before taking a journey with him back to his childhood.  Sometime after being born in the Rookery to Clara (Morfydd Clark), the young Copperfield finds himself living in the least traditional of places, an upside down boat on the beach.  It’s here where he lives with family housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), Peggotty’s brother Daniel (Paul Whitehouse).  Daniel’s adopted children, Ham (Anthony Walsh) and Emily (Aimée Kelly), round out the household.

During his time away, Clara marries the abusive Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd).  Murdstone’s sister, Jane (Gwendoline Christie), shares character traits.  Obviously, David doesn’t like either one of them.  He’s forced into labor at Murdstone’s factory until one day deciding to make a run for it.  David befriends Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) during this part of his life.

There’s a lot going on in the film that runs just shy of two hours.  This can be a good thing if you can’t handle more than two hours of a film.  However, it also speaks to the co-writers’ ability to shrink the material from its source.  A 600+ page source material would be more of a mini-series than a two hour film.  Obviously, not everything from the book is going to make it on screen.

Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell manage to write the film with their trademark wit.  I wouldn’t expect anything different from the duo with a few satires under their belt.  More than this, look at the diverse cast!  It’s one of the pluses that the film has to offer its audience.  Though I’ll never be able to hear Ben Whishaw’s voice without thinking of him as Paddington.

The Charles Dickens adaptation is a change of pace from recent political satires for director Armando Iannucci.  Yet sometimes we do need to take a time machine back to the past for some solid story ideas.  You can never go wrong with writers such as Dickens or Shakespeare.  It’s a film that works–maybe for some more so than others.  This is a film that offers something to say about art.  It makes sense when you think about it because some aspects of the novel were taken from Dickens’ own life.

While there are some dramatic events in the novel, the film finds a way to discover the comedy.  There’s comedy everywhere–you just need to find it.  Some scenes here really go for the comedic laughs especially when David joins the law firm.  Then there’s the scenes with Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie).  He thinks that the thoughts of King passed down to him after his death and can’t stop writing them down.  David suggests writing down the thoughts and placing them on a kite.  These are moments that could be played for laughs but also come with an emotional beat.  Hell, even the scenes with Mr. Micawber come with laughs.

Aside from shrinking the source material for a 2 hour film, the biggest task at hand is recreating Victorian England on screen.  This doesn’t come easy in a 21st century world obsessed with technology but they get the job done.  The wardrobe also gets something of an update for contemporary audiences, too.

The Personal History of David Copperfield shows that something old can feel new again.

DIRECTOR:  Armando Iannucci
SCREENWRITERS:  Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell
CAST:  Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welsh, Benedict Wong

The Personal History of David Copperfield held its world premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations program. Fox Searchlight will release the film at a later date. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.