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Film Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

28 January 20 words: George White

This adaptation of Charles Dickens’ book from 1850 manages to stay true to its source material while injecting a refreshingly modern feel to the story. Through combining subtle dialogue with playful physical performances, this is a purely entertaining movie that channels the qualities of some of the most renowned British classics...

Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton
Running Time: 119 minutes

The most impressive movies are built from intelligent scripts, and this film offers smart and consistently funny moments from start to finish. David Copperfield takes after timeless British comedies of the past, with its focus on witty dialogue and sharp subtlety reminiscent of the Monty Python era. Seemingly small beats have a big impact without the need for exaggeration or hyperbole; blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comments deliver outstanding moments of humour throughout. 

That said, the film also displays a theatre-esque quality with equally amusing physical elements. There are particular scenes, such as one in which Tilda Swinton’s Betsey Trotwood is banging a trespasser’s head against a bollard as Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) describes how lovely and caring she is, which are brilliantly shot and channel the energy of stage shows. The entire film has a playful personality that radiates fun, and delivers one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of recent times. 

Armando Iannucci’s dynamic camerawork is thrilling, and is complemented by creative editing techniques that epitomise the high-spirited approach of the film. Much like the titular character, this film is restless, always itching to move on to bigger and better things. The movie rarely rests on a particular incident, constantly looking for new ways to entertain. Yet in the more downbeat moments, Iannucci finds time to emphasise the emotional beats, developing honest scenes which manage to impact the audience in between bouts of laughter.

Patel pieces together a character who is equal parts likeable and complex

Both the subtle dialogue and vibrant physical performances are terrifically delivered by a stellar cast. Hugh Laurie is delightful on his return to the big screen, oozing likeability through his charming sense of innocence and wonder. Tilda Swinton continues to impress in everything she is in, delivering lines with expert comedic timing. And Ruby Bentall is hilarious as the empty-headed Janet, channeling the absurd humour of characters like Erin from The Office USA

Yet the star is undoubtedly Dev Patel in the leading role. He is one of the finest actors around, but we have yet to properly experience his comedic ability until now. Patel channels the spirit of David Copperfield more than any other actor, his delightfully Dickensian approach to storytelling proving a treat. His awkward, anxious iteration of the character is masterfully delivered, as Patel pieces together a character who is equal parts likeable and complex. 

Patel summarises the joyous and energetic nature of the film in general. This is a pure, entertaining and genuinely funny comedy that channels the spirit of the classics of British cinema. The mix of intelligent scriptwriting and theatre-esque physical performances makes David Copperfield an outright fun production that has something for everyone. 

Did you know? Dickens' novel was first adapted as a silent film in 1911.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 6 February

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