‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Reimagines a Classic Dickens Novel as a Diverse and Whimsical Journey

Life itself is a journey. We have little choice over where we are born or who we will bump into along the way. Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” whimsically reflects on life’s highs and lows, focusing on what a tragic, joyful comedy we all live. It is based on the classic 1850 novel by Charles Dickens, “David Copperfield,” and it wisely changes the title. The essential elements of the Dickens novel are here, but it doesn’t matter if you have read the book or not. Iannucci has made a film that can stand on its own, adding a fresh diversity as well to the tale. Showing exclusively in cities where movie theaters have cautiously reopened, this is a film that may not be worth a dose of Covid (what movie is?), but merits seeking out if you can enjoy it under strictly safe conditions.

It begins, as it does for us all, with birth. Our narrator, David (Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani), is born to Clara Copperfield (Morfydd Clark), who is without a husband. Gifted with a sharp memory and a storyteller’s wits, young David seems to have a pleasant enough life until his mother marries a British aristocrat who sends David off to 19th century London. Toiling in bottling factories, staying with a huckster constantly in debt, Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), then finding some solace with his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), David (now played by Dev Patel), begins to develop a sense that not all is assured in life. As he gets a chance to go to school, David makes friends with those in the “gentlemen” class, but he feels shame at revealing his actual roots and status. They give him nicknames, and he is too nice or humble to demand he be called David Copperfield. It is his actual name, after all. More characters will follow, more ups and downs, while the venal will rise. All the experiences and faces David collects in his memories will shape him, leading him towards his true vocation.

Iannucci’s take on Dickens is a refreshingly original work that has its own voice while still celebrating the great author’s key themes. Its first notable burst of originality is in providing a color blind cast that wonderfully captures the timelessness of the source material. When one thinks of Dickens, rarely do Black characters or Asian ones come to mind. But Iannuci casts an Indian as David Copperfield, and casts Black actors in roles such as Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, daughter of law firm owner Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), or Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mrs. Steerforth, the overbearing aristocratic mother of David’s preppy college friend James (Aneurin Barnard). Iannucci’s casting choices, all strong and perfectly suited to each role, is a brilliant stroke that also celebrates the wide variety of people Dickens conjures in what is considered his most autobiographical book. These characters should be diverse, because in this world we will come across countless different faces, backgrounds and names in our journeys. 

A journey is indeed the best way to describe “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” The film is a gallery of one man’s life from level to level. Iannucci has no patience to tell the story like another, stuffy Victorian drama. This is the director who made “The Death of Stalin,” one of the great recent political satires, where the death of the Soviet dictator became a darkly hilarious riff on how power and ambition work. So his “David Copperfield” happily captures how life can indeed be farcical. Think of all the people you have met or had experiences with, their quirks and all too human strangeness. Aunt Betsey can’t stand the sight of donkeys, her distant relative Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is convinced the severed head of Charles I haunts his mind with thoughts, only writing them on paper or sticking them on a kite will ease his madness. There are also villains, like Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), who is an underling of Mr. Wickfield, subtly hiding a growing, acid resentment of the upper class. Heep reminds us that there are those who rise from below, but with a vengeful rage.

Iannucci is able to pack so many characters and story threads into this film because it feels like a linear adventure. And it never strays from David as the center of it all. He could be any of us experiencing life’s hard and joyful lessons. David goes to school and befriends James’s preppy circle, then financial woes strike out of nowhere and he desperately tries to hide the truth, all the while his classmates call him “Daisy” and he simply accepts it. Later he will find work at a firm, he will fall in love, possibly with a wrong choice in the sweet but sheltered Dora Spenlow (Clark) and he will taste opulence and defeat. There are also flashes of adventure at a seaside community where David has fond memories of a boat turned house occupied by fishermen, then he brings the wrong person over and a tale of forbidden love shatters the calm. 

Visually this is a grand and marvelous film. Iannucci and cinematographer Zac Nicholson evoke the elegance of aristocratic England, while conjuring the slums, cramped apartments and factories full of working children Dickens wrote so vividly about. Screen projections on interiors will be used to reveal a major development to the characters, and wide shots seem lifted from Victorian artwork. There are no illusions about 19th century society. It wasn’t all gentlemen and ladies swooning under umbrellas. When young David is forced to work at a bottling factory you’re grateful child labor laws were later passed. Dickens would also approve of the factory’s overlord, a large, wheezing capitalist whose every word is repeated by his acolyte.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” has the kind of movie title where you could easily insert your name at the end. Rarely do we stop and wonder about all the chapters we have lived as human beings. David has to learn that you can have and then lose, that you have to fight for respect, and that being born with nothing never means you should surrender. But along such journeys he, and us, meet personalities who can be jesters, or lovers, friends and foes. After the end credits roll ask yourself what stories you could tell. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield” releases Aug. 28 in select cities.