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The Personal History of David Copperfield review: Is the new Dickens’ adaptation worth watching?

David Copperfield
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Pic credit: Dean Rogers/20th Century Studios

More movie theaters open this weekend, and some more new movies are hitting for fans ready to get back out and see something on the big screen again.

After last week’s two big releases of Unhinged (see review here) and Words on Bathroom Walls (see review here), there are more big releases coming next, including a new Charles Dickens’ adaptation.

Here is our review of the new Dickins’ movie The Personal History of David Copperfield.

The Personal History of David Copperfield Review

It seems almost hard to believe that it has been 12 years since Dev Patel broke out in his first movie role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. It seemed like he was destined for greatness but has remained under the radar since that film.

One early misstep, in M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of The Last Airbender, might have slowed his rise to the top, but his talent is undeniable, with amazing performances in movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Lion.

Now he is back in a Charles Dickens’ adaptation, and he is as wonderful and captivating as always.

The movie is The Personal History of David Copperfield and is based on the book that is considered the author’s masterpiece, as well as his personal favorite.

The novel is a first-person POV story about the title character, from birth to adulthood, and all the trials and tribulations he faced along the way. Copperfield wanted to be a writer and had no better story to tell than his own, which is the form the book took as well as the way the movie tells its story.

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens with Copperfield (Patel) taking the stage and starting to tell his story. It started with his birth and a loving and playful mother who made sure his childhood was joyful despite his father dying before his birth.

However, a new cruel stepfather pushed him out, and the people he met along the way formed him into the man he was to become.

The movie, which checks in at about two hours, condenses a 600+ page novel, so it makes sense that the film takes the form of a series of vignettes in his life, and never fleshes out each segment enough to warrant too much passion.

However, that does not stop director Armando Iannucci (the man who created HBO’s Veep) from creating a delightful film that bops along through the highs and lows and leaves the viewer smiling at the end.

This is credited mostly to the production design, which was whimsical and very similar to a stageplay (tying into the bookending of the story in the theater), and a cast that brought the entire story to brilliant life.

Patel is a wonder in everything that he does, and the fact that he is not a major Hollywood star is a tragedy. He made you care about David Copperfield, so you feared for him, felt bad for him, and found disappointment in some of his decisions, but never turned on him.

However, the highlights go to three of his co-stars.

Peter Capaldi is Mr. Micawber, a man who gave David a place to live when his stepfather sent him away to work as child labor in a factory. As fans of the story know, he is a man who ends up in debtor’s prison but soon comes back into David’s life.

Tilda Swinton is his aunt, Betsey Trotwood, a woman of wealth who walked out on him when he was born because he was not a girl. However, after the death of David’s mother, she takes him in and gives him a place to live until misfortune falls on her.

Finally, Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick, a friend who lives with Betsey, who has voices in his head that David helps him let out through inventive means.

All three of these wonderful actors bring the scenes in which they appear into vibrant life and make this entire story a joy to behold.

The film does make some minor changes to the story to give the film a happier ending in a shorter time.

In the book, David gets his happy ending, but the movie shortchanges characters like Dora (Morfydd Clark) and Ham (Anthony Welsh). Both suffer tragic ends in the novel but are spared here, mostly because the run-time would have put their fates too close to the film’s end, taking the joy away from the experience.

The final fate of Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) is also not shown in the film, although most viewers know what they want to happen to the young man.

Final Thoughts

The Personal History of David Copperfield is not a Cliff Notes version of the novel, although those who love the book might see it as such.

Instead, this is a movie that offers up the hope and bewilderment that is the life of a spectacular young man who has such great adventures and lives to tell the world about.

Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Tilda Swinton steal every scene they are in, and they help raise this from a simple, whimsical tale into something truly special.

If you hit theaters this weekend and want to see something with a historical slant but a refreshing and light tone, this is the movie to see.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is showing right now in theaters across the United States. 


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