Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield is a beautiful new take on a classic story

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Consider, for a moment, the career of Armando Iannucci, noted Scottish satirist. He’s famous for whip-smart and ruthless political comedies like the acidic TV show Veep and the brutally comic films In The Loop and The Death of Stalin. His latest project, out this week to rent or buy on demand, is quite different from all that. Here’s the swerve: The Personal History of David Copperfield is a relatively straightforward adaptation of Charles Dickens’ most famous novel, David Copperfield. Unlike a lot of Iannucci’s most famous work, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a warm and loving story, a period drama that, like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, is faithful to its source material yet modern in its vision. (It does retain Iannucci’s sharp wit, which dazzles.)

The story of The Personal History of David Copperfield is quite simple: it follows its eponymous protagonist on his journey from boy to man. Like a lot of Dickensian characters, David Copperfield (Dev Patel) begins life stuck between hope and tragedy; his father dies while he’s still young — a classic storybook setup — but his mother provides a warm and nurturing environment despite the family’s lack of means. It can’t last, though. Copperfield’s mother marries a cruel man who eventually ships him off to London. Then the young Copperfield’s life becomes one lived in transit, as he is shuttled back and forth between surrogate parents and families. Crucially, though, the young Copperfield takes lessons from his travails — from the aunt who lives in a house made from a boat to even his creditor-dodging landlord.

He writes down phrases that lodge in his brain on scraps of paper and collects them in a small box, which is his most prized possession. One day he will string those words together and, in doing so, tell the story of his life (which is what we’re watching). As the original novel was a work of autobiographical fiction, The Personal History of David Copperfield also strives to emulate the feeling of a young man learning to tell his own story.

It begins on a stage. Copperfield introduces an audience to a play based on his life, and then the stage bleeds into the English fields outside the place Copperfield was born — an event that Copperfield, who is present, narrates. This playfulness continues throughout the film: memories and parallel events are projected on walls in front of characters, and some scenes are actually rendered as dioramas. Through it all, Copperfield’s box slowly fills.

Next to Dev Patel’s magnetic charm and charisma, that box is perhaps the most endearing thing about the film. It’s a visual testament to how wonderful it is to meet people, and how the person you think of as you is actually an amalgamation of many different minds. Storytelling becomes survival and illumination; Copperfield clings to his box of words when he sleeps in a ditch after he’s lost everything. He turns to it again when it’s time to finally decide the person he wants to be.

That The Personal History of David Copperfield retains its source material’s Victorian setting also makes it feel surprisingly modern, as the industrialization preceding the birth of the modern middle class echoes its contemporary implosion. Factories spring up, which means there’s work. But the work is brutal — and brutal to watch, even as we know that labor movements lie in the future. In Copperfield’s Victorian present, precarity abounds. While it’s technically possible to attain a better life, one bad stroke of luck can send you back to the gutter. Capitalism, like the God of the Old Testament, is fickle.

But his dream of making it persists. Copperfield’s fortunes rise and fall. Though it ends in success, his real treasure is that little box of phrases. In the story, he is able to make meaning out of a socioeconomic machine outside of his grasp. The Personal History of David Copperfield, like Dickens’ novel, is an exercise in personal myth-making that is less about the protagonist’s success than the community he forms — which is just as well because it is hard, in these times, to feel good about a story of just one man making it.

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