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Film Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) is a comedy-drama film and a retelling of the David Copperfield novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Armando Iannucci, this film has a huge cast list including Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Gwendolyn Christie, Ben Whishaw and Peter Capaldi. Going from birth to adulthood, this film tells the story of David Copperfield (Dev Patel) and the friends and enemies he meets along the way.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) - source: Lionsgate
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) – source: Lionsgate

With a cast of this calibre, it is safe to say that this film is filled with wonderful performances. Not only are they given fantastic material to work with, with characters written with many dramatic and comedic moments, but several of them actually vanish into this world created. Dev Patel is able to feel grounded in a role so prominent as Copperfield and adds a layer of humanity and realness into his performance. I didn’t even recognise Ben Whishaw or Gwendolyn Christie until I saw their names in the credits, that’s how much they vanished into their roles. Peter Capaldi may be my favourite of the lot though, as he is truly bonkers yet has a tragic background to showcase as well.

I am not at all familiar with the source material or any retelling of David Copperfield, but I am glad I went into this film blinded from any prior knowledge. This film managed to pack a full story of an extraordinary person’s life into two hours and not make it feel rushed which is quite impressive, to say the least. Focusing on the key moments that defined Copperfield’s life, it is nice to see the film take time to breathe and reflect on previous events, making the entire story feel concise and equally important.

From the first minute, you are sucked into this Victorian world that comes to life on screen due to the incredible work done on the production and costume design. It is the work of the costume designers and the make-up artists that I had trouble recognising Ben Whishaw and Gwendolyn Christie in their roles. The costumes help enhance each character’s personality and give them real charm to their roles. The production design feels authentic, taking you straight back into the 1800s. The costumes could have come off as wacky and unusual for that time period and the locations, but they actually blend together nicely to not only have some element of fun but to place the audience into the location themselves.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) - source: Lionsgate
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) – source: Lionsgate
The Personal History of David Copperfield is filled to the brim with charm like any true British film is. It also has a great balance of tone, ranging from comedy that made me laugh several times, to drama and hitting me heavy with gut-punching emotion. Yes, the film can easily feel overdramatic in moments, but this almost seems purposeful in its tone and I actually quite enjoyed that aspect of it. Some scenes could have been toned down a little but it is nice to see a film have fun with its story and narrative style.
Iannucci, being the sort of director that he is, decided to take a blind-casting approach to this film. This is essentially when any person of any race is cast for any role, regardless of the period and time of the film. I found it particularly effective in the case of Dev Patel, who is an excellent choice regardless of skin colour or race. However, this can get distracting when you see white characters with black parents and vice versa, something that is biologically impossible. There also still seemed to have all of the rich and truly powerful characters of the story played by white actors, which I assume was a coincidence but something that seemed obvious to me. I appreciate the attempt, but maybe it is something for me personally that made me be taken out of the film when I saw the biological impossibilities of the situation.
The film does, unfortunately, start to go downhill in the final third, when a secondary storyline involving two of Copperfield’s friends takes a much larger section. Not only did this storyline feel unnatural to me as to how it came about and how the characters involved acted in the situation, it never really added anything to the story of David Copperfield in the way it was maybe meant to. Whenever this storyline was the main focus of the moment, I just wanted the film to move away from it and go back to being purely about Copperfield and his current battles at that time.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) - source: Lionsgate
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) – source: Lionsgate

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a charming little film that will certainly have its fans, and I appreciate the risks that Iannucci took with the blind-casting, even if I do not think it fully works. The film wavers off by the end of the runtime, but there is enough heart there to keep my interest throughout. I would recommend checking it out, but this is a film you can save for streaming or home release.


Have you had a chance to check out The Personal History of David Copperfield? What did you make of the blind-casting choice? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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