Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

A fairly quiet January release, that you probably didn’t see, despite its impressive cast, unfortunately it was mixed in with the rush to get out the lengthy list of awards hungry features. Dev Patel tackles the titular man himself and is supported by some of Britain’s finest, including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Whishaw and Peter Capaldi, to name a few, poised to bring a classic to the big screen with a bang. If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows Copperfield through decades of his life as he goes from blessed child to poor factory worker and beyond, and the joyous number of colourful characters he meets along the way.

Watching Patel’s previous films, you can see why he was thought of for Copperfield, he’s repeatedly shown how much energy and vivacity he can bring to a role, as well as deep and meaningful emotion, which is all perfectly suited for this character. He doesn’t disappoint, his joy for life is almost infectious and hugely enjoyable to watch, anyone who has concerns or criticisms because of “colour-blind casting”, it’s recommended that you wholeheartedly ignore those people, he was a great choice and it really shows, it’s a role all about personality and he has plenty. Throwing on top of that, the ever fantastic Tilda Swinton, relentlessly funny Hugh Laurie, perfectly icy Gwendoline Christie and the charming Rosalind Eleazar, there’s scarcely a negative to be found; the closest being that Peter Capaldi’s role feels a little repetitive for him. Ben Whishaw is also a long way from Paddington in this role.

However, the film as a whole, is charming and lively but it simply isn’t the type of comedy that audiences have come to expect from Armando Iannucci. It’s difficult to argue with a classic, especially one by as entrenched of a legend as Dickens but with the director’s recent works including The Death of Stalin and Veep, the comedy takes a severe turn for the accessible and sentimental, it’s nowhere near the biting, witty and unforgettable lines that are associated with his work but in his defence, he couldn’t take too much liberty with a 170 year old work. There are also a couple of cheap effects that lessen the film’s impact, particularly the use of linking scenes together by having moments projected onto a sheet, then moving into that moment, it’s unnecessary and overly simple, which is clearly intended as subtle or clever but misses the mark entirely.

A way to describe how the film presents itself might be that it is blissfully ignorant of its own pretentious nature, you’d imagine that Copperfield’s rags to riches, to rags story might be more relatable but it doesn’t come across that way. The end result is instead something that feels indulgent and over-stuffed, pleasant and lovable indeed but being just enjoyable isn’t really the level this film was aiming for. Patel is fantastic as Copperfield and it’s undeniably a brilliant bunch of characters with big personalities but a story that’s almost two centuries old is hard to argue as a necessary piece of cinema, unless you do something wonderful with it (like Gerwig with Little Women). The Personal History of David Copperfield is entertaining but there’s an undeniable sense of lacking something to give it more depth.

Verdict: 5/10 | ✯✯ 1/2 

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