Review: A personal History of David Copperfield


It may be a retelling of old tale, but it refreshes the story of inclusive casting in cinema

4/5 Stars


As a fan of Dickens (major fan, don’t judge), I’m always sceptical of a new take on his stories. His characters are vivid: so familiar and generic, yet they stand as unbelievably peculiar and intricate. Colourful characters are the fabric of the story woven in David Copperfield, so I was hesitant as to how they would be presented in Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of one of the country’s best loved novels. 

I was positively thrilled and relieved leaving the cinema, as this film delivers. From every quintessential detail to its ‘larger-than-life’ themes, Ianucci has recreated Copperfield’s very personal history with wit, creativity and heart. 

Co-written with Simon Blackwell, this version of the beloved tale is somewhat a recreation. It steers away from well-known lines and jokes, revolutionising Dickensian wit in relation to modern audiences. But it isn’t just revolutionary in its writing. Spectators can tell this film has been cast due to the actors’ talents and charm, rather than bleak and elitist intention to stick to standard realism in a period piece (what a boring rhetoric). If one had never heard of Dickens, it could seem that the characters have been written to suit each actor. It is instead, that every actor is cast to suit each character’s character, as opposed to their look and ethnicity.

It begs the question, isn’t this how every film should be cast? Dev Patel, who superbly and earnestly performs as the titular role, is of Indian heritage, and modern audiences are aware that the ‘real’ David Copperfield in Victorian Yarmouth would not have been. But ‘David Copperfield’ is not real, so it is not paramount that he is presented realistically in exterior. David’s internal outlook is what is important. 

He’s a character blessed with the ability to appreciate a person’s merit in their uniqueness. He respects many a type of person, regardless of their social value. He sees the honesty in the petty criminal Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi), the gentle in the unstable Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), the kindness in the severe Ms Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and the sensitive in the brash Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper). This unlikely crowd become family to David as he is orphaned, and eventually they become the characters of his bestselling novel.

The cast is nothing short of stellar and each of the central actors compliments the writing perfectly. There is laugh out loud humour, whilst also points of immense sensitivity; the high capability of the cast captures the intricacies of Dickensian characters whilst also being accessible to a modern audience. 

Points of Copperfield’s life seem rushed at times; the drama of Steerforth and poor Emily’s dangerous elopement doesn’t get the screen time it deserves. But, all in all it’s a beautiful film that I cannot recommend enough. There beats a palpable moral throughout: not to judge a person’s worth on how they appear in society. 

This is a lesson the casting of Hollywood could learn from too. The Personal History of David Copperfield’s blind-casting is seamless. Every actor is appreciated for their talent and this bleeds into the very makeup of the film. It is an important and heartfelt piece of British cinema that has been criminally overlooked this award season but… isn’t everything these days. Golden trophies and stuffy ceremonies are finally losing their power (pheww). Ignore the nomination lists and go and see this film- you won’t regret it.