The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

There is a simple expression that I can’t help but live by when it comes to movie adaptations of books: if you never read the book, the movie will always be better! That applies to me with Simon Blackwell’s and director Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). To be honest, the name David Copperfield never makes me think of this book that I’ve never read, but rather the magician I grew up watching on network TV. Thus, having no prior connection to this story or the characters, I went in unsullied and enjoyed the experience. 

Dev Patel in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The story follows David Copperfield (played by Jairaj Varsani as a child, and the always-excellent Dev Patel as an adult) from birth to later in life through a series of ups and downs. His life begins tough with his father already being dead, and eventually, his mother (Morfydd Clark) remarries to a horrid man named Murdstone (Darren Boyd). His sister (Gwendoline Christie) sends David away to a factory where his life only seems to get worse. However, David’s spirit isn’t broken, and he sets off on many adventures and makes very many friends. 

The cast in this film is off the charts great, with Patel somehow still shining brighter than all those who surround him. Tilda Swinton plays his wealthy aunt who David eventually seeks refuge from. Staying with her already is Dick, played by Hugh Laurie. His character is unbelievably charming, and the quirk that he possesses adds a lot of humor to the story. From Doctor House to Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi plays Mr. Micawber – who is often being chased for some debt or another – and is one of the first people to be kind to David, which David never forgets. While there are several other worthy characters and performances, these three are the standouts. However, despite all they do to make this film enjoyable, the heart of it falls to the lead. 

(From L-R): Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Patel has long since been a draw to a film for me. He is always charismatic, even if the rest of the film around him is a dumpster fire…I’m looking at you, Last Airbender. This movie only allows him to flex his charm muscles all the more, and if you can watch the scene where he is attempting to profess his love to another character and not crack a smile, then you are a hardened shell of a person! Or maybe not…but still, it’s such a fun performance inside this odd world that reminds me a lot of Big Fish (2003) – remember, I’ve never heard this story, but I’m sure it likely influenced Big Fish in some ways – both in its narrative and the aesthetic of it. 

Hugh Laurie and Dev Patel in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The Personal History of David Copperfield is out now in theaters…at least the ones that are open, though I would recommend you take precaution during this pandemic. I thought it was a fun film with an overall optimistic take, which is often something we need in this dark timeline we find ourselves in. It is worth watching for Dev Patel alone, but it will also help you feel less dumb when you’re walking by a gaggling gathering of Dickens’ fans. The Personal History of David Copperfield earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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