Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Simon Blackwell
Starring: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi
Genres: Comedy, Historical Fiction
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Release Date: 8/28/20 (Wide Theatrical)
Where to Watch: Theaters (Limited)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Runtime: 2 hours

The Personal History of David Copperfield is probably unlike any other period piece you’ve seen before. For one, there’s color-blind casting, which could cause serious eyerolls from racists and other folks who may claim to be non-racist but prefer more “traditional” (i.e. white) casting in order for the stories to be more historically accurate. But, I believe all-white casting to be boring and not with the times. The diverse cast of the latest Copperfield adaptation represents more of the diversity present in today’s society. In my opinion, actors should be cast based on talent, not on race or nationality (unless integral, to the role, as in Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman).  

In Armando Iannucci’s (of Veep fame) version of this classic tale, Dev Patel has been cast as Copperfield — and what a joy and relief it is to see him finally cast in a role that not only has nothing to do with his race, but allows him to show off both his comedic and dramatic acting talents. This role is perfect for him to do so, and he ends up being rather charming and relatable, despite the numerous hardships and wonders that he experiences. The film lives or dies on Patel, so thankfully he succeeds. Although much of what transpires is predictable and hackneyed, that doesn’t mean his journey any less entertaining or watchable. 

Patel’s Copperfield is aided in his journey by a handful of pedigreed British actors, including a delightfully eccentric Hugh Laurie (who I put on my supporting actor shortlist), an always-reliable Tilda Swinton, an adorably awkward Ben Whishaw, and Doctor Who’s own Peter Capaldi. 

The film is at its best when it fully embraces the absurdity and hilarity of what transpires, and doesn’t succeed nearly as well when delving into more dramatic situations and moments. That’s not to say that Patel and the others aren’t up to the task; rather, the tonal shifts aren’t always merited.  Balancing comedy and drama is no easy feat, which is perhaps why this adaptation should be viewed mainly as a comedy. 

Grade: B+