Review: Life, Strife and a Colorful Cast of Characters in Exuberant The Personal History of David Copperfield

In his previous works, director/series runner Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, “Veep,” In The Loop) has finely tuned his R-rated satire about the warped state of politics into a deadly weapon. But with his latest, the PG-rated The Personal History of David Copperfield, he’s managed to reinvent one of Charles Dickens’ most beloved novels (along with co-writer and frequent collaborator Simon Blackwell) and turn it into an inspirational and sweeping testament to determination and survival, using an array of terrific actors while not completely abandoning the acerbic wit that made the filmmaker such a standout comedy giant.

Personal History of David Copperfield Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Using color-blind casting (not unlike Hamilton) and the conceit that, since the novel was written in the first-person, it was Copperfield himself (Dev Patel) who wrote the publication as an autobiography, allowing his entire life story—as the film’s title would imply—to feel like much more of a personal journey with actual stakes. But it also means that the narrator is slightly less reliable and might see himself as more the hero and less of a protagonist, which pulls us deeper into his mindset. Copperfield’s story is largely like the book, although the language feels more like dialogue and less like prose. There are priceless asides by some of the characters that elevate the humor, gorgeous cinematography by Zac Nicholson that always seems to reflect the mood of the moment, and note-perfect performances by some of the finest stage and screen actors working today.

When David’s mother Clara (Dora Spenlow, who shows up later in the film as another character very important to David) remarries to the awful Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), the stepfather brings along with him an even more horrible sister (Gwendoline Christie), and the pair eventually chase David out of his own home and into a glass-bottle factory. He works as child labor until he finds out that his mother has died. He runs away to live with his distant aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton, a highlight of this and any film she’s in), and her lodger Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who is bordering on insane from hearing the voices of long dead kings in his head. In a stroke of genius and an early example of pop psychology, David comes up with a way for Dick to deal with the stray thoughts that clutter his brain, and the two are bound for life.

Much like the mid-1850s book, this telling is loaded with colorful characters who seem a bit less like archetypes and more like actual human beings. Case in point, the Micawber family (led by Peter Capaldi as the patriarch), whom David lives with while working at the factory, are certainly lovely people, but when you start to pay attention to what they’re doing in the background, it usually involves avoiding people they owe money to. And by the time Mr. Micawber lands in debtor’s prison, we begin to realize that the film has its serious edges and that the old adage that every British film is about class is likely based in no small amount of truth.

Rounding out the cast are the likes of Aneurin Barnard as school friend James Steerforth, whose overbearing and snobbish mother causes James a great deal of deeply rooted anxiety as a young adult; Benedict Wong is an attorney and frequent drinker Mr. Wickfield; and the tremendous Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, an odd and subservient young man in Wickfield's office who becomes a man of ambition and schemes against those who were once his perceived betters. He’s the closest thing the piece has to a true villain, whose origin story is bordering on sympathetic; Whishaw digs his teeth into the character and never lets go.

My favorite character is Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), David’s best friend, Wickfield’s daughter, and the true heart of this film with her practical and well-intentioned advice, even about affairs of the heart. It’s as if she’s waiting for him to grow up just enough to realize she’s the one he’ll eventually love and be there to vastly improve his life.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is true to the spirit of the source material, without necessarily always being true to its dense plotting. Occasionally, there are meta jokes about the strange and bountiful coincidences in Dickens’ writing, storylines have “alternative” endings, and some elements simply don’t make the final cut, and I didn’t miss any of it. Patel always adds a burst of energy and enthusiasm to anything he’s in, and having him be the center of this universe can be quite moving in unexpected ways. The entire affair feels like a labor of love from Iannucci and his team, and their passion for the materials comes through with a great deal of focus and exuberance. This was a genuinely pleasant surprise.

The film is playing theatrically around Chicago, including at the newly reopened (as of Friday) Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.