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TIFF: The Personal History of David Copperfield

At the world premiere of director Armando Iannucci’s new film The Personal History of David Copperfield, he was asked by an audience member the reasoning behind his diverse casting choices. His response: ‘Why shouldn’t I draw from 100% of the acting community?’

As I sat to watch the film I kept thinking to myself, I’m glad I lived long enough to see such a diverse cast in an adaptation of a classic novel. Naysayers step aside. This take is refreshing and modern while staying true to the spirit of the original novel. 

With a diverse cast we see an array of possibilities. And what a cast! Dev Patel is incredibly charming as David Copperfield. He brings an energy to the film that makes it electric. Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are hilarious as Copperfield’s aunt and uncle Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick. Morfydd Clark plays both Copperfield’s mother and his love interest Dora. Ben Whishaw is creepy as all get out as the scheming Uriah Heep. Peter Capaldi is the lovable and perpetually broke scamp Mr. Micawber. Then there is Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, Copperfield’s tough as nails best friend. Other notable cast members include Nikki Amuka-Bird as the proud and severe Mrs. Steerforth and Benedict Wong as the wine happy Mr. Wickfield. I was delighted to see Darren Boyd as the evil Edward Murdstone. He was in one of my favorite Britcoms Kiss Me Kate. 

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar and Hugh Laurie in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Just like in the novel David Copperfield is telling us his own story. At the start of the film, the older Copperfield inserts himself into the story of his younger self. We see set pieces drop away to reveal the next scene. This reminded me of similar techniques used in director Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) starring Keira Knightley. These aren’t used throughout the film mostly at the start and at the end. I would have liked to see more of them but they would have distracted from the more dramatic sequences.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a diverse retelling of Dickens’ novel that is clever, quirky, and hilarious and boasts a spectacular cast. Some critics have noted that it would have worked better as a miniseries or TV show. It did feel a bit too long but perhaps that was festival exhaustion kicking in. I for one am glad it’s a film. A miniseries might not have boasted such a wonderful cast of players.

The Personal History of David Copperfield had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

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