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The Personal History of David Copperfield (A Movie Review)


Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw , Paul Whitehouse, Aneurin Barnard, Daisy May Cooper, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welsh, Rosalind Eleazar, Jairaj Varsani, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Darren Boyd, Matthew Cottle, Bronagh Gallagher, Anthony Welsh and Aimee Kelly.

Screenplay by Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell.

Directed by Armando Iannucci.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 119 minutes. Rated PG.

Finally, the movie I’ve been waiting to watch all quarantine and I honestly had no idea what it was to be about.

I watched the trailer after watching the film, and when Dev Patel discloses that he thought the script was to be about a magician, it echoed my initial assumptions about the film. I completely forgot about the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield and my mind had jumped immediately to the image of the modern-day famed magician by the same name.

Frankly, after my quarantine Dr. Who marathon, I was just excited to see a film with Peter Capaldi (the 12th Doctor).

My assumptions on a film about magic did not waiver in the film’s opening scene, as a dapper Dev Patel stands at a podium in front of an audience filled with people dressed in period costumes. I was surprised, but still expecting a story about a magician, as he ends his thoughtful opening line and walked through the back of the stage into the English countryside.

But only moments later, the scene opens on the kitchen of a period home, a scene in stress, and my brain lightbulb lit up: I was not about to see anything about the 20th century magician. It became clear that the magic was in the characters, their witty dialogue, their incredibly acted roles, and the reimagined world of Dickens’ David Copperfield.

I was caught off guard and completely enchanted by The Personal History of David Copperfield in all the best ways.

Admittedly, I’ve not read the original David Copperfield (but it has been added to my to-be-read pile). I’ve been told that it has some dark moments and for sure, I've seen the film Oliver! many times (also based on a similarly plotted Dickens novel) so I am familiar with that type of storytelling.

Right from the start, this film feels different. A woman in labor can set a very stressful opening tone for a film, but instead, we are given nurse maid Peggotty (played by Daisy May Cooper) engaged in masterfully timed dialogue with the estranged aunt (to the soon to be born David). Pegotty and Betsey Trotwood (played by the ever quirky Tilda Swinton) banter back and forth about their names. It is followed by Ms. Trotwood insisting that this baby will be a little girl, that should also be named Betsey Trotwood. The baby will make only good choices and not have her affections toyed with.

Clara Copperfield (played by Morfydd Clark, who also later plays blonde ringleted, dog-speaking, Dora Spedlow) gives birth to her baby boy, David (eventually played by Dev Patel) and a very disappointed new aunt abruptly takes her leave. (Don’t worry, we get more of her as the film goes on.)

Patel as David Copperfield (and really, he goes by so many nicknames in this film – “Trotwood” and “Daisy” to name only two) narrates the start of the film. He looks on at his younger self, reminiscing about his happy early days with mom and nurse maid, capturing the memories on little scraps of paper held dear in his treasure chest.

Then enters the formidable Mr. Murdstone (played by Darren Boyd) and we get a glimpse of the dark toned story yet to come. Thankfully, we are spared the darkness for a few more moments as Peggotty whisks David away to beachy Yarmouth, where her family lives under a brightly painted, capsized, upside down boat that they’ve turned into the perfect shoreside abode.

Scene by scene, director Armando Iannucci introduces us to the friends and foes of Copperfield’s memories that he then uses as the basis for the characters that he writes as an author (cue the recognition that this is the closest thing Dickens wrote to his real life story).

Fellow Dr. Who fans, Peter Capaldi plays grifter/father to a never-ending brood, Mr. Micawber, who crosses paths with David on many occasions and he is lovely in every scene. House fans, Hugh Laurie plays Mr. Dick giving face and humanity to mental illness supported by people who care.

There are too many incredible performances by this global ensemble cast to name everyone, but I dare you to watch and choose your favorite actor and line. What I can tell you is that I will be watching The Personal History of David Copperfield again and again, for the laughter, the music, the production design, and yes, the magic. I encourage you to do the same.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: August 28, 2020.

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