An Oddball Cast Brings Life to a Timeless Tale: “The Personal History of David Copperfield” Review

by Hunter Johnson

There is no way to truly prepare for the unabashed strangeness of Armando Iannucci’s brand-new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic semi-autobiographical novel.

Indeed, “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” Iannucci’s third outing as a film director/writer, is a wild ride filled with sharp modern humor intertwined with classic Dickens material, creating an experience unlike any other.

Iannucci is well-known for his dry humor and sharp wit – his comedic creations include several satirical shows centered around fictional British newscaster Alan Partridge as well as the show “Veep,” a sardonic lampooning of American politics – and his oddball sensibilities shine through in this new Dickens adaptation.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is chock full of idiosyncratic characters that match Iannucci’s style, and yet the story itself never crosses over into the realm of absurdity. Dev Patel stars as the titular role and anchors the entire film with an adventurous liveliness which he undergirds with serene moments of quiet drama and intensity.

In supporting roles are Copperfield’s great aunt Betsy Trotwood and her lodger Mr. Dick, played by Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie, respectively. They deliver delightful performances as characters who could have easily been over-the-top irritating but instead are some of the loveliest aspects of the entire film. Laurie in particular plays his part with such simple charm that it is impossible not to smile every time he shows up on screen.

Another standout is the brilliant Peter Capaldi, known for his eccentric turn as Doctor Who, who takes the hysterically hopeless Mr. Micawber and fills him with endless optimism and glee that mask a deep sadness his character refuses to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, Morfydd Clark brings a charming, childlike nature to Dora Spenlow, Copperfield’s love interest. She’s both timid and endearing while also managing to bring an obnoxious ignorance to the character and her actions.

Ben Whishaw possibly brings the most out-of-type performance to the entire film, playing the conniving, manipulative Uriah Heep in a creepy, scene-stealing role that will leave audiences feeling unsettled. This is an especially noteworthy turn for Whishaw, who’s generally played well-meaning characters such as Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins Returns” and the titular bear in the “Paddington” films.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a generally straightforward — albeit more comedic minded — adaptation of its source material, with one intriguing twist: the film is completely unconcerned with casting actors whose ethnicities match those of the original characters. Copperfield himself is played by an actor of Indian descent, Copperfield’s best friend Agnes by an actress of African descent, and Agnes’ father Mr. Wickfield by an actor of Chinese descent.

Yet the film doesn’t address the issue of ethnicity at all. Copperfield’s family is Caucasian, and there’s no attempt at explaining the difference. The same goes for many other characters in the film. Rather, in a move reminiscent of the popular stage musical “Hamilton,” Iannucci decidedly tells a historically based period piece using the actors that he believes are best suited to embody these characters, and his faith is dutifully rewarded, as the whole cast play their parts brilliantly.

In the end, Iannucci takes the idea of “anyone being able to play anyone,” a concept thus far limited to the realm of stage theater, and incorporates it beautifully into a charming, fast-paced film adaptation of a hilarious and timeless story.

Hunter Johnson is a Senior Theatre Performance Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He spends his time gobbling up all the Star Wars that Disney pumps out, followed by daydreaming about his future dog Jojo, all while giving endless attention to his beautiful fiance.

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