The Personal History of David Copperfield breathes new, wonderful life into an already delightful classic. A period piece with a twist of silliness, this adapted Charles Dickens novel follows the life of the titular character as he narrates the tale of his own life, from humble and oppressive origins to a delightfully quirky middle-age.
An adult David Copperfield (Dev Patel) recalls the tale of his existence, on stage in a Victorian era theatre in England. From his humble beginnings as a young boy dealing with wicked uncles and aunts who want him to join the dangerous child labor practices of the industrial revolution, to a schoolmate who wrecks his self-confidence and betrays him – he is seemingly destined for failure. And yet the unwavering love and support he receives from Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and a host of quirky side characters allow him to blossom into a fine, well-dressed young man on a quest to achieve the Victorian dream. Despite the mania of most people around him, he is pushed on by the unfailing optimism of people like Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), who believes that everything will always work out in the end.
Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, In the Loop) masterfully finds comedy in the unexpected, weaving a tight tale incorporating an already slightly eccentric story and pushing it to its goofiest potential. He manages to restrain his tendencies toward the absurd, and keeps the narrative flowing as the movie pushes forward (and backward) through time to weave an adult David’s memories of his life to form a story. Iannucci’s surprisingly light and humorous touch throughout the film is both in accordance with and somewhat in contrast to his body of work in creating dark, treacherous, villainous humans capable of extraordinarily base behavior.
Co-writer Simon Blackwell (Veep, In the Loop) more than adapts this masterpiece, he really leaves an intelligent and fresh spin while staying true to the era and sentiment. Writing an adaptation from a famous writer’s semi-autobiographical tale of a man who wants to grow up to become a writer is no easy feat, and takes a vainglorious and accomplished feat of writing in and of itself, which he here proves that he is able to do.
From start to finish, the way the scenes drop away as time passes and locations bridge, the film plays out like a series of connected memories focusing on loss and love. The rolling, gorgeous cinematography seems to defy what a Dickens novel usually represents, yet because it’s a shiny version of one man’s memory of his upbringing and focus on very narrow yet delightful elements of his story, it totally works here.
Peeling away hundreds of pages to focus on the meat of the matter, this pared-down version of the story does away with a great many smaller details while focusing on David, which is a strong choice that reaps its own rewards. What could have been a really dark tale of cruelty and abuse is spun to show an optimistic world that’s surprisingly clean, both physically and morally.