The Personal History of David Copperfield




Armando Iannucci rewrites Dickens in his wayward adaptation of a much-loved masterpiece.


The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev as Dave 


After giving us great and serio-comic times on television with The Day Today, Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep, as well as the films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, writer-director Armando Iannucci now hits on a favourite text, David Copperfield, in order to drain as much comedy as he can from Charles Dickens’s tale of one man’s grim journey through Victorian Britain. It is written as a first person narrative as told by Copperfield but in truth it is an amalgam of some aspects of Dickens’s own life alongside much fictional invention.

First published in serial form the novel was an episodic work, a fact reflected in Iannucci’s adaptation. The writer-director has taken the main facts about his hero’s life – from birth through childhood, being sent to boarding school by his miserable stepfather Edward Murdstone, the death of his mother, his forced working in a bottle factory, his being looked after by Aunt Betsey Trotwood, his eventual love for Dora Spenlow and on her death his marriage to Agnes Wickfield. Through all this Iannucci introduces most of Dickens’s indelibly famous characters – Clara Peggotty, Wilkins Micawber, Little Em’ly, Uriah Heep, James Steerforth, Mr Dick et al.

However, the film tends to focus more on the farcical aspects of the story, somewhat, I think, to its detriment. Beautifully filmed, however, by Zac Nicholson and well-dressed by Suzie Harman and Robert Worley, the result is an uneven series of comic turns rather than full characterisations, many of which I found not all that funny. It is as if the Marx Brothers had got hold of the script and done their best to scuttle it out of existence.

That said, however, there are moments of some pleasure to be had from the casting of Dev Patel as David, Aneurin Barnard as Steerforth, Daisy May Cooper as Peggotty, Anna Maxwell Martin as Mrs Strong, and Paul Whitehouse as Mr Peggotty, while Peter Capaldi as Micawber, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw, as a particularly nasty Uriah Heep, seem to have captured the essence of Dickens’s writing, reminiscent of the many previous film and classic television adaptations.



Cast: Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Paul Whitehouse, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie, Matthew Cottle, Bronagh Gallagher, Aimée Kelly, Anna Maxwell Martin, Victor McGuire, Peter Singh, Jairaj Varsani, Anthony Welsh, Benedict Wong, Lynn Hunter, Sophie McShera. 


Dir Armando Iannucci, Pro Armando Iannucci and Kevin Loader, Screenplay Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, based on the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Ph Zac Nicholson, Pro Des Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx, Ed Peter Lambert and Mick Audsley, Music Christopher Willis, Costumes Suzie Harman and Robert Worley.


FilmNation Entertainment/Film4/Wishmore Entertainment-Lionsgate.
119 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 24 January 2020. Cert. PG.