The Personal History of David Copperfield Review

It’s rare that I go into a film completely unaware of what it’s about. Beyond the rather lengthy title, I had not even watched a full trailer, just a 30 second teaser and that hinted at a fun film but not much in the way of the story. Having seen it, I now know it is a Charles Dickens novel that is being brought to life by a “colour blind” cast of very talented actors and actresses. 

The film opens on a stage with Dev Patel, playing the titular David Copperfield, beginning to tell the audience the story of his life which. As he is speaking, he turns and walks through the theatre stage’s back drop and out into an open field as he walks towards a house where a woman is giving birth. That woman is his mother, and he is the child being born. We are taken through his life, from birth, through all the major events and up to him writing the very thing he is reading on stage.

I don’t always write a synopsis-like description of a film in these reviews, but I felt it necessary to frame the story which plays out, and for me it helped sell some of the films whimsical nature off as it is a man retelling his life, rather than us actually living it with him. The word whimsical was constantly popping into my head as I watched this story play out. It is silly, its whimsical, but above all it’s entertaining.

Dev Patel is genuinely brilliant in this, as he tends to be in most things I have seen him in, but the pure joy he seemed to have playing this character spread across the entire cast and everyone is just enjoying the Dickensian world they’re in. The world is full of grey, gritty situations, and the bad characters are cartoonishly evil and always wearing black. This serves just to highlight the good people, dressed in much brighter garb, with fun accents and over-emotive expressions.

Every new character introduced is another actor you will recognise from somewhere. There is Tilda Swinton & Benedict Wong (Avengers Endgame), Peter Capaldi (Dr Who), Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) and Hugh Laurie (House) just from memory, and all of them are great in their roles. Each of the characters serves a purpose and has something quirky about them that make them instantly memorable. It’s an excellent display in how to write side characters that serve their function in the story and have something entertaining about them for the audience as well.

I had some issues with the way the story is told, and the devices they use to do so. The way it flits in and out of having a voice over from Dev Patel, then from other characters, then it doesn’t have any voice over for ages, then once you’ve forgotten it was ever there, its back again. I had kind of settled into the story and was enjoying it then suddenly Dev Patel is talking to the audience over the scenes unfolding and it stood out like a sore thumb. I was never quite sure whether we were watching the story as it played out or if it’s being remembered by David Copperfield a certain way or if you’re in a sort of dream sequence. It’s an odd thing as I am pretty sure this is done intentionally, but it just didn’t quite work for me.

As someone who loves the craft behind making these films, I found the production design and scene transitions are incredible. Each character’s colour palette stays consistent and the world is very well realised, you believe you’re watching mid 1800s England, even if there are liberties taken with the time it takes to travel by horse and cart from London to Yarmouth.

The Personal History of David Copperfield reminded me a lot of Little Women, but unfortunately it isn’t quite on the same level as that film. It’s an entertaining ride through a whimsical world of fun, but it missed that emotional beat that I wanted to come along at some point in the story. The performances are worth the admission alone, and there is a lot of good stuff to be enjoyed.

Good: Performances of all the cast, the production value and the joy you’ll have watching these characters interact.

Bad: I felt there was going to be an emotional beat that never came in the third act and the storytelling felt a bit muddled.

7/10 – Whimsy: The Film

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