TIFF 2019: The Personal History of David Copperfield

A change of pace for Armando Iannucci as he swaps expletive-laden satire for a charming, comic riff on Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield

Film Review by Katie Goh | 10 Sep 2019
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield
Film title: The Personal History of David Copperfield
Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw
Release date: 10 Jan

Armando Iannucci – best known for 2017’s The Death of Stalin and cult TV classic The Thick of It – has taken somewhat of a left turn with his latest film, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel. Leaning more heavily on the costume drama than the satirical side of his previous work, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a softer, more charming and (perhaps for some) disappointingly sentimental turn for Iannucci.

Dev Patel plays the titular hero, the film’s beating heart and a casting stroke of genius. Often underused in previous comedic roles, here Patel gets to stretch his comedy muscles and his energy is infectious. The film opens with David on stage, presenting the story of his life. The curtains draw back and we start at the beginning. Raised by his single mother and Peggotty, his family's no-nonsense housekeeper, David grows up a happy, privileged boy. Trouble in the shape of a new step-father soon arrives and David is sent away to London to work in a bottle factory.

The story follows a riches to rags to riches and then rags again trajectory, and while the jaunty journey through Victorian London’s class hierarchy is enjoyable it does wear thin. Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell have skimmed the surface of Dickens’ 900-page novel, choosing to tease out the story’s comedy and then rattle at full speed down cobblestoned streets to get to the final page. It’s fun for the first half but, by the end, it’s a relief to get off.

The film’s strongest asset is undoubtedly the cast, who are having the time of their lives. Tilda Swinton plays David’s donkey-chasing aunt, Hugh Laurie is the Charles II-obsessed kite flyer and Peter Calpadi’s debt-dodging eccentric seems to have fallen out of a classic Doctor Who episode.

More a refreshing take on Dickens’ novel than a radical reinvention of the costume drama, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a crowd-pleasing comedy with a brilliant cast at their comedic best. But you can’t help wondering if it would have made for a more satisfying television series than movie.

The Personal History of David Copperfield had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival; its UK release date is yet to be confirmed