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Life In Words And Visions: The Personal History Of David Copperfield


At the beginning of The Personal History Of David Copperfield, the title character wonders aloud if he will ultimately be the hero of his own life. David (Dev Patel) poses this query at a pivotal moment of his young life, He recounts his life from his birth at Blunderstone Rookery to the widow Clara Copperfield (Morffyd Clark), which came six months after the death of his namesake father. The only help Clara had in raising young David (Jairaj Varsani) came from her housekeeper, Miss Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). When Clara starts to court successful businessman Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), David and Peggotty go to Yarmouth and spend time living with her brother, Mr. Peggotty (Paul Whitehouse) and several others whom he'd given a home. When Clara and edward marry, David returns home, and finds life is not for the better. Not only has Edward become the dictatorial head of the household, but he has brought his sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) to serve as David's tutor. David, though, encounters reading difficulties that the siblings eventually find intolerable. As a result, David is sent away to London to labor in the wine factory that bears Murdstone's name. Edward has arranged for the boy to live with Mr. Micawber (Peter Cataldi) and his family as Micawber does whatever he can to dodge his creditors.

The arrangement lasts for several years until Edward and Jane come to the factory and notify David that Clara has died and has already been buried. That revelation leads to a permanent break between David and the Murdstones, as the young man heads to Dover to live with his wealthy aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). There, he finds a kinship with Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Like David, Mr. Dick likes to write and collect experiences in word, though the lodger is also convinced that his mind now holds the thoughts once held by King Charles I. In accordance with David's wishes to get a proper education, Betsey sends him to a school run by Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong). There, he meets Wickfield's quietly ambitious servant Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and the very self-assured James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard). David also finds his first love in Wickfield's daughter, Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). Graduation parts them, as he pursues his career interests and meets Dora Spenlow (also played by Clark). Many of the people he knows and loves best, however, become troubled when Heep partners with Wickfield.


The Personal History Of David Copperfield has had many screen adaptations over the course of more than a century. This interpretation of Charles Dickens's work comes from director and co-scenarist Armando Iannucci, who's famously known as the creator of the TV series The Thick Of It, Veep, and Avenue 5. Those series often have a sharp edge to their humor. This comedy of manners, though, is usually tame and reserved. I suppose Iannucci thought it best to treat his screen take on Dickens with reverence, and he does fine in that regard. The director has some interesting approaches, such as the multi-cultural cast here, and the thoughts that come from David's lips turning into nice visuals. The snese of observation is also good, as Iannucci shows the less affluent characters enjoying themselves more than the affluent ones. The latter of them seem to want a sense of control of everything they know, and are so unhappy as they learn they can't asset that level of control. I like the scenes at the Trotwood home the best, as they show the movie at its liveliest, as three minds work with a common purpose. The part I liked least was the beginning, where Iannucci tips his hand about the movie's end. A more effective beginning would have involved David's words and visions without seeing the man himself.

The performances are good, especially from Patel, Swinton, and Laurie. Patel, as David, is Dickens's alter ego. He is an avid collector of life as he knows it, and looks to share his observations with others. He protects his words more than any other possession of his, even in a scene where a thief takes his coat from him as he wears it. He gets a good look at many facets of life, and finds a way to persevere as he deals with people as abusive as the Murdstones. Swinton is delightfully fussy as Aunt Betsey, who initially distances herself from David simply because he expected her nephew to be a girl. In spite of her attitude of donkey riders on her property, she is ultimately a very caring woman. Betsey is what the Murdstones are not to David - flesh and blood, a point the aunt makes clear. Laurie probably has the most fun role as Mr. Dick, who shows both a sharp mind and crazy thoughts. David even recognizes it as he turns kite flying into a form of therapy for his fellow writer. Clark also adds a nice touch as the loving Clara and the wide-eyed Dora, who dotes more on her beloved dog Jip than she does on her man.


The only other screen version of David Copperfield I have seen is the one from 1935, which is very good, in spite of its signs of age due to certain stagy performances. The key performances in George Cukor's effort, however, are quite memorable. Freddie Bartholomew and Frank Lawton shine as the title character, and they have great support from the likes of Lionel Barrymore (Dan Peggotty), Basil Rathbone (Murdstone), W. C. Fields (Mr. Micawber), and Edna May Oliver (Aunt Betsey). The Personal History Of David Copperfield is a celebration of the creative spirit, even though much of the film is very ordinary. Those who know the works of Dickens would certainly contend he is anything but ordinary.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Personal History Of David Copperfield three stars. Dickens's semi-autobiographical work gets another screen adaptation.

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The full title of this famed Dickens work is The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences And Observation Of David Copperfield The Younger Of Blunderstone Rookery. It initially appeared in installments in 1849 and 1850. The book followed the installments.

The Personal History Of David Copperfield trailer

© 2020 Pat Mills


Pat Mills (author) from East Chicago, Indiana on September 21, 2020:

Thanks Mel. I myself have never read David Copperfield, but I can highly recommend both Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. I wasn't a big House fan, but Laurie did play an egotist well both in this show and in a recurring role on Veep. Mr. Dick shows a different side of Laurie's comic talent. If you're pressed for time, you have at least two good versions of David Copperfield to see,

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 21, 2020:

For some reason I could never get into Dickens, but I like Hugh Laurie. When I was a bit younger, people used to tell me I looked like Dr. House. Of course, a more paunchy Dr. House. Having never watched the show I didn't know what they were talking about, but he does play a fine a-hole, and being a professional grump myself there is something of a connection there.

Might give this a whirl someday, if I can get around my Dickens allergy. Great review.

Pat Mills (author) from East Chicago, Indiana on September 14, 2020:

Thank you Romila.

Romila De Munshi from India on September 14, 2020:


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