As if there weren’t enough remakes and sequels out there already, The Personal History of David Copperfield has arrived to fill that Charles Dickens-shaped void in cinemas that haven’t seen a new adaptation of Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol in a couple of years. Luckily, Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist behind the television show Veep and the film The Death of Stalin, injects enough of his own style to keep an old and often retold story interesting, offering something new for everyone, whether they’ve read the book or not.
Though the film is a reinvention of the novel, it is also a respectful adaptation of it. The core premise and many plot points remain the same, though ordering is changed somewhat and much is cut and added to amend the flow of it. A boy, David Copperfield, is born to a wealthy family but after his father dies, his mother marries the cruel Mr. Murdstone and he is sent to lodge with a family in Yarmouth before being sent to London to work in a bottling factory. He later finds himself in school and experiences various rises and falls of fortune during his adult life. As in the case of the book, the film is presented as being a collection of stories written by David Copperfield himself, and there are various cutaways to him writing and narrating his story that punctuate the different chapters.
Though it is fairly similar to the Dickens story, and it’s certainly not Iannucci’s usual brand of satirical endeavors, his style is ever-present and helps to bring the story to a modern age with a lightheartedness not often found in other adaptations. Even as horrible things happen to the cast of characters, there’s always a joke around the corner and a winking remark about it which, along with a brightly colored design to all the costumes and sets, put the film in a sort of odd fantasy world where nothing is ever so distressing though never devoid of weight either. It’s presented more as a series of vignettes than a full story and often large time gaps are bridged in a couple of words of voiceover, but it never loses its way. Iannucci does a superb job of blending the fiction of Copperfield’s telling of his own history and the reality of the story within the story to create a narrative that seems as if it could derail at any time and go in any direction.
In a story like this one, it’s only as good as the central performance, and Dev Patel brings his very best to what is possibly his best role yet. He and Jairaj Varsani, who plays a young version of the character, excellently develop Copperfield from a naïve boy to a confident young man, with every beat along the way being felt and a wide eyed enthusiasm being maintained throughout. Alongside the two David Copperfields are a superb lineup of other actors, including Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, and Hugh Laurie, among others. Each one of them manages to bring people who are only fleeting in Copperfield’s life into fully realized, memorable characters matching the depth found in the novel and in some cases perhaps even making them more fully realized.
Iannucci finds the middle ground between complete reinvention and entirely copying a classic work in a modern adaptation, and the film thrives for it. He updates the classic novel and makes it easier to understand and more relevant for our times but keeps the timeless story and the themes at its core. Both fans of Dickens and those who have never read one of his books are sure to find something to appreciate here.