In Brief: This is and then isn’t exactly Dickens. Or dare we call it Dickens light?
The Personal History of David Copperfield has a twist or two and a couple of changes added but it mostly follows Charles Dickens’ book. Oh, and if you’re really into Dickens, it’s more or less a comedy.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s some drama stuck in there, too, but the movie is not close to as dramatic as the novel Dickens published in 1850.
Dev Patel stars as Copperfield. As a child, he’s the victim of a nasty-dispositioned step father who sends him packing. Later in life, Copperfield reconnects with his estranged aunt. Living with her is a guy named Dick whose wild imagination connects with Copperfield’s equally vivid creativity.
The aunt sends him to a school to teach him how to be a gentleman. This is where he meets a man who becomes his best friend. As Copperfield slides into life after school, romance follows as do other crises similar to those found in Dickens’ book.
All of this is packed into an often funny script that shows off the comic talents of Patel, former Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie whose fame is from the TV show House. They and Tilda Swinton and a few other, very good, younger actors and actresses have a blast with the material.
Patel and his co-stars manage to do most of this with the straightest of faces. It had to be difficult. The Personal History of David Copperfield is co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci. He also co-wrote The Death of Stalin in 2017.
It has the same kind of campy humor.
The bulk of the heavy lifting — however — belongs to Patel. He can do drama as demonstrated in Slumdog Millionaire and Hotel Mumbai. However, as we learned from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this is the type of role that Patel does best. He oozes naivete. It is this positive innocence that makes him perfect as a comic David Copperfield.
There are flashes of drama in the script but no one in the cast manages to be able to sell those moments. A serious line is tossed off but as soon as it is delivered and the scene changes, you feel like the actors are a second or two away from busting a gut. You’re in the same boat. The movie is that silly.
But — oddly — it works.
Another interesting aspect of Iannucci’s movie is the multiracial casting. Some are going to point to the social unrest being seen these days as the reason. It’s not. The movie was released to festivals last year and it’s usually at least a year between the shooting of a movie and its release.
Patel is said to have convinced Iannucci to take what the actor calls a “color-blind” approach to the casting. Different races are cast in parts where that character wouldn’t necessarily be of that race. The point — I assume — is to emphasize the human aspect of Dickens’ writing and to show that no matter what color a person is, we’re all human.
It works very well and especially well in a story that is as human as one can get.
That brings us back to Dickens. Iannucci appears to be a big fan of the author. He did a TV documentary on Dickens in 2012 titled Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens. That one took a lot of liberties with the author’s stories. It had ordinary people addressing some of the issues brought up by Dickens in his novels.
Again, back to Dickens. Persnickety fans of the classic author may find the partial parody of his novel David Copperfield to be painful. The rest of us will find Copperfield’s personal history a pleasure, and one packed with light snickers, a chuckle or two, and from time to time, a belly laugh.
Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong
While it takes huge liberties with Charles Dickens original story, and while his story isn’t close to funny, this is a clever way to introduce younger audiences to Dickens. Give this one a 3 1/2 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
You can find The Personal History of David Copperfield in the theaters in Oregon that are open. Look it in other theaters when the release expands as the COVID restrictions relax.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.