Based on the classic by Charles Dickens amply titled “The Personal History of David Copperfield," this adaptation was thoroughly surprising. The story follows the life of Mr. Copperfield from birth to adulthood and the many ups and downs he faces. While that may sound like procedural hogwash, it is thanks to director Armando Ianucci that the film becomes something much more. What’s so surprising about the film is how the satirical insights fuel the more noticeable cliches a genre like this faces. Thankfully, with the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, it truly is something special.
Director Ianucci is someone who thrives from a very hard to pull off type of filmmaking that some call “dry-wit." As he is the creator behind many different shows (Veep) and films (Death of Stalin and In the Loop), his style is distinct. He allows these characters to move past the mere genre conventions period that pieces normally face. There’s a particular scene involving young Copperfield and his maid describing the look of a character that is so satirical and insightful it had me in stitches. The whole film has moments like these where the comedy comes from how the characters explain themselves. Narratively, that is such a hard feature to pull off because it can be considered incredibly dull for an audience. Though here from a stylistic perspective, it allows the audience to become emotionally invested. Even by having sharp and insightfully written dialogue, none of it would work without the cast assembled.
Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Lion) strikes a chord as true English gentleman meets struggling writer and genius. It is a particularly rewarding performance after spending time with young Copperfield (newcomer Jairaj Varsani) who truly made me feel every emotion for the character of Copperfield. These are two strong performances that are elevated even further by a just as smart and funny group of actors. These actors—Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Benedict Wong and several others—leave memorable impressions. Through even more mundane scenes such as the pronunciation of the word “ear” in place of “hear,” the comedy is consistently effective. There is such a steady flow of jokes that land, which makes the rest of the film move at a brisk and exciting pace.
A movie like “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is hard to come by in any normal year. That is why in a year like 2020, I want to sing this one’s praises from the highest metaphorical rooftop possible. Not only is it incredibly funny from start to finish but it’s got a lot of heart in all of its characters' stories. I found that even in its more over-the-top moments that some may perceive as cheesy, I had a giddy smile on my face. Mix great performances with sharp dialogue and a firm eye behind the camera and you get a movie that is simply delightful. There isn’t anything in this one you haven’t seen before story-wise, but it’s a ride you’re willing to take over and over again.
Watch the trailer here.