[TIFF Review] ‘THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD’ – Dev Patel is back in top form with a whimsical big fish tale


James Clay // Film Critic


Rated R, 119 minutes.
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whisaw, Hugh Laurie and Gwendoline Christie

TORONTO – THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is based on Charles Dicken’s classic novel. It has the chief of political satire, Armando Iannucci (THE DEATH IF STALIN), reconfiguring his creative efforts for a whimsical story that’s as choppy as it is comforting. The title role belongs to Dev Patel, who is at the top of his game. He boasts a bit of authentic color-blind casting in a succession of bubbly vignettes that chronicle his uneven life.

However, this is a turn for Iannucci, whose sarcastic style suffers from many fits and starts, even though it has a wealth of charm. There are many little warm-hearted directions the film takes with its characters, adding up into a storybook of adorable parables. It may be minor in terms of the social rhetoric we’re used to, but we have a filmmaker whose looking to have a hangout session with some of the Victorian era’s most good-natured caricatures.

Patel’s David Copperfield is introduced through a less-than-reliable voiceover. He’s less nefarious and better resembles a man recounting his life with big fish tales. Standing in front of a crowd in a little theater (that is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s dollhouse sensibilities). David begins to talk about how he was born to a poor single mother. Hopeful and filled with life, he doesn’t let his station in life stop him for experiencing his surroundings for all they are worth.

His family also had a spirited, full-time maid named Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). Their life together was a bumpy ride, but the intelligent nature of David is too busy getting into cute episodes of minor mischief to care.

Like many Charles Dickens’ moppets with a heart of gold, David is thrown out of his haven and onto the streets when his mother marries an authoritative dandy named Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who has no patience for David’s nonsense. Wandering and wayward, David runs into a street grifter named Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), and then encounters his donkey-hating distant relatives, Betsy Trotwood (Tilda Swindon) and Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie).

There’s so much silliness in meeting these characters in their natural elements. Iannucci masters the pure joy of having these characters burst onto the screen for a couple of lines and briskly run off for a few scenes.

A smarmy appearance of Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) adds a curveball to the cast of characters as he takes the shape of the main villain. He’s pretty harmless except for his strange obsession with eating copious amounts of dense fruit cake. “I like to know I’ve eaten a cake,” he says. This is a far cry from his voice work as Paddington, and almost as adorable.

Aside from the neighborly feel to all the character, the vibrant visual style is the film’s most substantial element. The rural English countryside and sweeping fields where David and his cavalcade of family live seem to live a carefree lifestyle even when the chips are down. So, why not bask in obscenely beautiful cinematography by Zac Nicholson (LES MISERABLES)?

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is the perfect Sunday afternoon picnic film. A perfectly friendly trip to a corner of Dickens’ work that’s nothing more than a wistful form of entertainment. If this is what it’s like to adapt classic British literature with modern values, sign Iannucci up to direct more projects just like this, please.

Grade: B+

THE PERSONAL HISORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. An encore screening will be held on September 14. Visit tiff.net for more information. The film will be released by Fox Searchlight in 2020.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.