Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Morfydd Clark, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Aneurin Barnard, Gwendoline Christie
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4½ of 5 stars
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield quickly transported me to another world by this stunningly inventive adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel. In a normal year, The Personal History of David Copperfield would surely have been a late-summer sleeper hit – it’s a highly entertaining and crowd-pleasing picture. Perhaps because people weren’t exposed to trailers for the film, the movie hasn’t found the audience it deserves. But it’s as worthy of your time as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the most well-attended current theatrical release.
Dev Patel stars as the titular hero, who, at an early age, is cast away by his nefarious stepfather (Darren Boyd) to work in a bottling factory. Upon learning of his mother’s passing, he escapes the factory and finds his aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who assists him in gaining a gentlemen’s education. When he graduates and becomes a proctor, he runs afoul of the scheming Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), who conspires to overtake Betsey’s lawyer, Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and, in the process, ruin David and his family financially.
In the midst of this, we’re introduced to a number of larger-than-life personalities, including Micawber (Peter Capaldi), a debtor with whom David lives as a child; Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie, in the film’s most winning performance), a relative of Betsey’s burdened with hearing the voice of King Charles I in his head; Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar), Wickfield’s daughter and David’s close friend; and Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark), the object of David’s affection.
With his misadventures and the colorful cast of characters in his life providing ample material, David takes to writing, and finds that he’s quite good at it. In fact, the only way he’s able to make any sense of his life is through storytelling. Above all, this is a way for David to assert his identity – nearly every character has a different nickname for him, and it’s only by becoming the author of his own story that David is finally able to be seen for who he is.
From the very first frame, David Copperfield is a visually stunning delight, packed with life. The recreation of 1840s England is impeccable, fused with a style that occasionally borders on magical realism. Iannucci, director of the sharp satires In the Loop (2009) and The Death of Stalin (2018), has remarkably condensed Dickens’ book into a compact two-hour film, while still managing to give even the most minor characters an uncommon depth. Consider the sensitivity shown toward Dora, who could have so easily been portrayed as dimwitted and thick. Instead, she’s slightly awkward and imbued with an earnestness that keeps her from being a punchline. She gets a truly eloquent send-off, too. When David attempts to insert her into one of his stories, she sweetly says, “I really don’t fit. Write me out.” And that’s all we need to know about the end of their relationship.
Of course, the real question isn’t whether The Personal History of David Copperfield is worth seeing – it’s whether folks are comfortable going to the movies. I picked a time when I felt the cinema wouldn’t be particularly crowded, sat near the back of the auditorium, and wore a mask. As it turned out, nobody else had come to see the film. I encourage folks who are comfortable with going out and practicing proper social distancing to support our cinemas. Perhaps in doing so in a cautious way, we can help them survive. For those who say there aren’t any new and worthy films out there, look no further than The Personal History of David Copperfield, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Andrew Cohn’s The Last Shift (opening this weekend), Sean Durkin’s The Nest and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven (also opening this weekend).
The Personal History of David Copperfield is rated PG, and I can’t think of anything objectionable in the film. I’d recommended it for the entire family.
Reviewed by Jack Kyser, a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.