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“The Personal History Of David Copperfield” Is A Different Take On The Classic

I freely admit to having been indifferent to the idea of a new version of the David Copperfield story. Yes, the Charles Dickens novel is a classic, and rightly so, but were we clamoring for another take? The answer is no. However, the fact that filmmaker Armando Iannucci was going to be co-writing and directing it gave me hope. Perhaps his signature style would showcase a whole other side to it that I wasn’t expecting? Well, The Personal History of David Copperfield is definitely a new spin on the story, one that’s enjoyable, funny, and well made, but it also seems to have robbed Iannucci of his trademark edge. Coming out this week, it’s a good literary adaptation and period piece, but not quite the ribald Iannucci work we’ve come to know and love.

The film is a new interpretation of the Charles Dickens story David Copperfield. While not taking place in modern times, it has a more modern approach, at least to a degree. In broad strokes, this is the tale you know, featuring the kindly title character David Copperfield (Dev Patel) at various points throughout his life, including as a child (played there by Ranveer Jaiswal), before focusing on his adulthood. As he goes about his days in Victorian England, in a quest to be a writer, he encounters both the best and the worst that the world has to offer. Specifically, he meets a wide variety of interesting characters, shaping his view of things. As he observes it all, the story of his life becomes the story he was quite literally born to tell. Armando Iannucci directs this adaptation, penning the screenplay with frequent collaborator Simon Blackwell. The cinematography is by Zac Nicholson, while the score is from Christopher Willis. Joining Patel in the case are the likes of Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, and more.

Dev Patel is excellent here, giving new life to the character. The supporting players are all strong, with rock-solid work from reliable types like Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton, to just name two, but Patel is clearly the star. Even if this had been a much more straightforward Dickens adaptation, without any of the modern aspects, he’d still have been more than good enough to help carry the day. Armando Iannucci still has his sense of playfulness and wit on display, so filtering it through Patel is a great choice. It’s just in some of the filmmakers other choices, or lack thereof, that trips me up a bit and prevents this from being an out and out rave.

The Personal History of David Copperfield only really fails in terms of the potential that the subject matter being tackled by Iannucci promised. Dickens and Iannucci make for strange bedfellows, and that potentially meant something special was coming our way, though instead we just get the most pleasant version of the subject possible. There are periodic touches that remind you who’s at the helm, but largely, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell play by the rules. It’s not a bad choice, mind you, just one that I felt left a lot on the table, even if the table already has plenty to offer, from Patel on down.

This weekend, while hardcore Armando Iannucci fans may be split on this latest project, The Personal History of David Copperfield is going to largely thrill anyone who loves the Charles Dickens book. That will be more than good enough for most. For myself, I wanted a little more of Iannucci and a little less of Dickens, but it’s still a pleasant enough mixture to easily recommend.

Be sure to check out The Personal History of David Copperfield, available to watch on Friday!

(Photos courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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