Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) – Say My Name

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Be it Great Expectations, Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens is a writer obsessed with the idea of a man finding himself in the company of those that see themselves as superior to him. The notion of class and living up to an idea of belonging to a stratum of society is a common theme in his work and David Copperfield is no different. Director Armando Iannucci has adapted this version of the novel while embracing the more surreal elements like only the creator of The Death of Stalin can. However, the idea of responsibility and the consequences of our actions gets lost among the comedy here as this David Copperfield rarely takes things seriously enough for his actions to really say anything much about him or the world he lives in.

Recounting the life of David Copperfield (Dev Patel) as he is sent away at a young age by his dismissive step-father into the hands of various families that care for him along the way. From the creditor dodging Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) to his distant aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Everyone he comes across adds to a story that is larger than life and contributes to a life of love, despair and naive optimism but in the end, it might just be the amused ramblings of a writer who sees things the way he wants to see them.

While the outlandish nature of Iannucci’s previous feature The Death of Stalin fit the subject material by making actual facts seem almost farcical to accentuate their shocking brutality, writer Simon Blackwell has converted Dickens novel into almost a telenovela where twists and turns are played for laughs and human interaction seems playfully whimsical. The fact that the whole film feels like the jovial rambling of an unreliable narrator allows for much more comedy than there strictly should be as moments of heartbreak and loss, such as David’s mothers death or the arrest of Micawber feel unremarkable, the idle musings of a forgettable past even though the events that transpire seem anything but normal.

Despite a clear agenda for biting satire, a lens intent on provoking a discussion of the importance of how we are perceived, or its lack of importance, as Iannucci seems to suggest, a point I happen to agree with, what comes across most vividly is a disparity between character and honesty. In fact, only Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick seems to feel like a person who belongs to Blackwell and Iannucci’s world, one for whom humour doesn’t diminish his value, only adds to him humanity, in tragic ways.

While it is a tale told with panache, both vibrant and charismatic thanks to a cast taking advantage of this comic re-imagining, especially Patel, Tilda Swinton and an empathetic yet biting performance by Rosalind Eleazar as ignored love interest Agnes. Although fitting with this new vision, the casting of Benedict Wong and Capaldi seems jarring in that they seem to be playing to a stage audience. Both are overly dramatic in a film that is dripping in a sarcastic tone that doesn’t fit the over the top theatrics

While narratively, the film follows Dickens novel faithfully it feels like a broad strokes interpretation that is more wishful than effective. Aiming high but relying too heavily on laughs that are earned at the expense of the story, Iannucci plays a story that is bold, if not a little too safe.


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