The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

From rags to riches... and back again.

A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Personal History of David Copperfield, set in the 1840s, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it. From his unhappy childhood to the discovery of his gift as a storyteller and writer, David’s journey is by turns hilarious and tragic, but always full of life, colour and humanity.

Based on Charles Dickens' novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield is the first Armando Ianucci's film I ever watched. I didn't really know much about this movie besides its stellar cast. I'm not the biggest fan of biographical works. Usually, I find them too constricted to the genre's formulas, and if I don't think the protagonist's life is remotely entertaining, then the whole film crumbles. Fortunately, it's not the case of this Ianucci's adaptation. It's one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, I finished it with a massive smile on my face.
David Copperfield's life is portrayed in such a captivating, entertaining, genuine, heartfelt manner, but always maintaining this sort of lightness. There's always something positive coming out of even the worst of situations. Actually, I think that's the best message transmitted to the viewer: it doesn't matter how horrible your life might be at a particular moment, it will only get better if you don't give up, and if you surround yourself with true friends and family. Throughout the runtime, David shares his life with different families and friends, working and living in the poorest and wealthiest places.
His lifestyle changes drastically after each new significant development in his journey to become a writer, and it's such a joy to watch him grow up. From working like a slave in a factory and being homeless to living in a boathouse and eventually in a mansion like a true gentleman, David goes through all of the obstacles life throws at him, learning from them to become a better person. A really nice touch is the distinct names that people call him throughout his life, depending on where he lives/works and who's he talking to: Davy, Doady, Daisy, Trotwood… These might be merely different nicknames for David, but they mean much more. They're a tiny yet efficient detail that remarkably distinguishes his unique lifestyles.
Ianucci and Simon Blackwell do a terrific job with the screenplay, by offering Dev Patel an exceptional platform to shine. The whole cast delivers outstanding performances that elevate the movie in an invaluable way. Patel is an excellent protagonist, and I don't want to diminish his extraordinary display, but he's only as great as his counterparts. Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood) and Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick) form a hilarious couple, deeply important to help David rise from the ground. Peter Capaldi brilliantly portrays Mr Micawber, a family man with immense debts, who teaches young David (impressively represented by Jairaj Varsani) how London works by escaping his creditors.
Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie use their physical attributes to interpret the evil Murdstone brothers, who employ extreme, violent measures to educate David. Everyone involved in bringing the Peggotty family to life is as essential as the family's importance to the protagonist. Benedict Wong (Mr Wickfield) shows his funny side once again, as Morfydd Clark is charming enough as Dora Spenlow and Clara Copperfield. Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth) becomes David's best friend, but his final arc doesn't quite fit the film, in my opinion, prolonging the latter for a few unnecessary extra minutes.
So, as you might have figured, every cast member has a vital role to play in some shape or form. All are incredibly fun to watch, making this two-hour flick flow tremendously well. Technically, the production and costume design are award-worthy. The XIX century streets, houses, and clothes are really immersive, creating a realistic environment, elevated even more by the subtle yet powerful score (Christopher Willis). Seamless editing (Mick Audsley, Peter Lambert) and impeccable cinematography (Zac Nicholson) also help the movie's pacing and even contribute for a few transition jokes.
All in all, The Personal History of David Copperfield is one of the most entertaining biographical works I've ever seen, as well as one of the most pleasant surprises of 2020. It's one of those films that leaves you with a huge smile, from ear to ear. As the viewer, watching David Copperfield's journey to becoming a writer is so captivating and fun, not only due to the humorous screenplay, but mainly because it's such an honest, emotional, genuine story. Only a few minutes in, and I already wanted him to succeed in life. My emotional attachment to the protagonist was so strong that I couldn't help myself drop a couple of tears by the end. I don't have enough words to describe how wonderful every cast member is and how important each role has in David's life. Dev Patel is an impressive lead, but his performance is elevated by the work of his counterparts. It's technically flawless, but the story and its characters make this movie an absolute delight to watch.
Definitely, one of the best films of the year, so don't you dare miss it!
Rating: A-

FilmNation Entertainment, Film4 Productions, Searchlight Pictures by Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, Charles Dickens.
Stars: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi.

Genres: Comedy, Drama

Keywords: based on novel or book


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