The Personal History of David Copperfield

Aug 27, 2020

It's a rich, colorful adaptation that Dickens would have loved.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Grade: A-

Director: Armando Iannucci (In the Loop)

Screenplay: Simon Blackwell (Four Lions) from the Dickens novel.

Cast: Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Hugh Laurie (Tomorrowland)

Runtime: 1h 59m

Rating: PG

By: John DeSando

“Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story or whether that station will be held by anybody else these moments must show.” David Copperfield (Dev Patel)

Speaking in front of an audience in Charles Dickens’ 1850 classic autobiographical novel and now in the entertaining 2020 dramedy based on it, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a work worthy of the master, whose life, like David’s, was not dull.

With acclaimed director Armando Iannucci, talented co-writer Simon Blackwell, and gifted actor Dev Patel, this farce has an enviable pedigree that pays off within minutes.

Actually, it has been paying off 14 times for the last 110 years with six miniseries and eight movies. It continues to reward with a colorful, character-laden romance that may have too many episodes and characters but the probable approval of Dickens, who never created a character he couldn’t love.

It seems the filmmakers want to rescue Copperfield from the staid 19th century and place it firmly in our far more ironic, open-for-laughs 21st. If they tried to catch the richness of Dickens’ characters, they succeeded: Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is typically out there somewhere, Tilda Swinton is every bit as stiff as Aunt Betsy, and Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Micawber, as ditzy and indebted as Dickens could make him, is worth the price.

Add more seriously Ben Whishaw as David’s constant rival, Uriah Heep, and you still have more eccentric characters than I have time to include. Just know that like the original novel, the film is rich with detail, both visual and cultural.

Step back in time, the endlessly grimy London of Dickens to be exact, and know that you don’t have to deal with the filth and poverty that David saw and worked like his creator to his glorious storytelling advantage. I wish Covid could provide such richness.  

As long as you’re careful, go to a protocol-responsible cinema to see this luxuriously photographed tapestry of another time—big screen, big sound—that’s what movies do. Besides, it’s not streaming yet so what choice do you have other than staying home, a decidedly more comfortable place than David/Charles had but never as interesting?

“Don't worry. You'll make it through. And you'll have quite the ride on the way.” David

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at