Movie Review | The Personal History of David Copperfield
A shaky start, but things only get better from then on: movie, character, or both?
Movie summary: A modern take on Charles Dickens's classic tale of a young orphan who is able to triumph over many obstacles. (IMDb)
Having never read David Copperfield - nor, in fact, having any idea what it was about other than most likely about a guy called David Copperfield - I had absolutely no idea what to expect from The Personal History of David Copperfield apart from thinking that it looked very funny in the trailers. Fortunately, the trailers weren't a lie and this is indeed a very funny film.
I wasn't so sure it would turn out that way at the start because everyone was so over the top that the characters were lacking the necessary depth to connect with them first before finding the humour in what they said and did. It's actually a problem that the movie struggles with for the first half, teetering from brilliant and hilarious to cringe-worthy at times.
While there are some scenes intentionally filled with humour that is awkward to watch, I mean that I was wondering what the hell I was watching because certain characters went so far beyond the larger than life feel of the movie into some kind of parallel dimension that had apparently never heard the words subtlety or nuance.
For all I know, this is also the case in the book and The Personal History of David Copperfield is simply stuck with keeping to the source material, but - even if that is the case - it still feels like it could've been dialled down a little to fit in a little better with the rest of the movie. The biggest problem these characters cause is it hurts other characters too.
To start with, Dev Patel is great as David, even if he does look far too old to be the young guy he's supposed to be early on - he is a 30-year old playing a teen in some scenes after all. The problem with establishing his character early on is that others are so terrible to him that what he has to put up with feels entirely unrelatable.
It isn't until more people are introduced and we get to see them treat him in varying ways thanks to their own social standings or personal situations and how they relate to him as a result. This is when Patel gets a chance to shine as David navigates his way through each relationship, presenting a different image of himself to each of them.
It's this struggle and his desire to fit in that defines him early on, but his story ultimately ends up reversing that course as he learns to accept everything that makes him who he is. It's not easy going getting there, and there are some awkward moments as he continues to try his best for everyone around him, but he definitely ends up in a better place as a reward for his efforts.
I don't want to go down the entire cast who are all excellent, but I will say that I especially loved Tilda Swinton and High Laurie as Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick, who are hilarious from start to finish, but they also both have smaller, sweeter moments that really make you like them despite their more eccentric behaviour at other times.
If there's one major character who gets short-changed, it's Ben Whishaw's Uriah Heep. It feels like a lot of his story as the central antagonist of The Personal History of David Copperfield's second half was edited out and how he leaves the movie feels a little underwhelming - mainly because he just there as an uncomfortable obstacle and nothing more.
A mention also for the very sweet character of Dora, played by Morfydd Clark (who also played David's mother, so take that casting choice for what you will...), who is incredibly nice and clearly loves David very much. Even though she's not the sharpest person, her departure from the film was a very sad moment for me at least - she and David never felt right as a couple to me, but I did think that she deserved better.
And the reason they never felt right as a couple is thanks to Rosalind Eleazar's performance as Agnes, who clearly cares just as much - if not more so - about David from a much earlier point and there were moments that frustrated me (in a good way!) that David couldn't see how much this wonderful woman liked him. Eleazor and Patel are fantastic in every scene they share, which just made me want them to get together even more!
To say any more about the characters or story would be to spoil things, so I'll stop here and finish by saying that I really did enjoy The Personal History of David Copperfield as one of the best new movies I've seen in 2020 and would actually like to watch it again, if only to see if the first half of the movie improves knowing what's to come later.
The Personal History of David Copperfield ultimately proves to be a very good film that I enjoyed a lot, although the first half had more than its fair share of wobbles that made me think that wouldn't be the case. But the ending is really strong, because of the small moments of sadness that make the happy parts even better.