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Review: 'The Personal History Of David Copperfield'

There have been more than a few movie adaptations of the Charles Dickens masterpiece David Copperfield, first published in 1850.

A silent film version was released in 1922.

The most famous one is the beloved 1935 version directed by George Cukor, starring Freddie Bartholomew. It’s a classic.

Now comes a fresh new film version starring London-born Dev Patel who skyrocketed into fame in Slumdog Millionaire back in 2008.

He’s a very talented, very likeable young star. And he’s quite good in The Personal History of David Copperfield.

And he’s in good company.

His co-stars include Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton as well as a supporting troupe of actors that was a product of colorblind casting.

From the start, you know that this isn’t the stodgy, traditional re-telling of the Dickens classic that you might have expected or feared.

I’ll admit, I had my reservations when I first read about the release of the film.

Director Armando Iannucci pulls out the stops in bringing the story back to life with the energy and style calculated to make it appealing to audiences in 2020.

You sense that the minute you see Dev Patel’s credit in the starring role.

It’s a non-traditional choice that indicates the intention of shaking things up a bit.

This departure from the norm trickles down through the rest of the very mixed cast. It’s a delightful melting pot of players.

And it’s evident that it’s not just a publicity stunt to gain attention or sell tickets; every one of them perfectly connects with their characters.

It’s a refreshingly different take on a story that we might think that we know all too well.

For Dickens purists, there may be some initial shock over the creative treatment of the story and characters. While the basic story is still intact, it now includes some clever departures and embellishments.

Probably the biggest shift, thematically, is in exploring the comedy elements while downplaying the drama and tragedy.

It’s a daring balancing act always in danger in falling on its face. But it never does.

Cinematically, Iannucci has the confidence to take some chances and have a little creative fun.

He has his main character and narrator, the adult David Copperfield, step into the flashback scenes of his own birth.

At one point, we see him among the first adults that he sees as a baby, smiling and staring down at him.

There are daydreams and fantasies abruptly and humorously interrupted by reality.

There are moments of pure romantic elation when Copperfield, the young man, first encounters the love of his life and then proceeds to see her name and face everywhere he turns as he walks home.

The visual effects aren’t the kind created by elaborate digital technology.

Instead, they are occasionally as simple as project images on a background behind the characters on screen. They are simple, and effective.

The David Copperfield story is character-driven as is true of all of Dickens novels.

In this version, their charm and depth are carefully and affectionately developed. The relationships all resonate beautifully.

Hugh Laurie’s eccentric Mr. Dick is a joy to watch.

Tilda Swinton’s Betsey Trotwood is delightful to behold. She looks like a woman from the mid-nineteenth century, and it’s great to see her in a non-villain role for a change.

Conversely, Ben Wishaw’s Uria Heep is pure evil, descending from fake friendship and adoration to sinister betrayal.

It’s a great ensemble cast with some surprise performers I’d prefer not to give away.

While I may have had some misgivings about yet another adaptation of David Copperfield, I can say that I was very pleasantly surprised with this re-working of the story.

It was fresh and fun and very entertaining.


The Personal History of David Copperfield is in theaters now.

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