Review: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ makes a great public spectacle

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” stars a talented, colorblind ensemble cast in an imaginative, funny and charming re-telling of the 1850 Victorian era novel by literary giant Charles Dickens who considered his eighth novel about a triumphant young orphan his favorite work.

"The Personal History of David Copperfield," a feature film about the eighth novel of Charles Dickens, is now playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — It’s rare as a film buff I would not know anything about a new release before it hits theaters.

It would be almost equally unlikely as a precocious reader as a child that I would fail to recall now the literary classics I read on my own or in English classes.

And so it was with great joy for me to “discover” that “The Personal History of David Copperfield” was a feature film based on the Charles Dickens novel about the titular character.

RELATED: Now showing at Lakes 12 Theatre - Week of Aug. 31, 2020

Watching the modern albeit quirky take on a young orphan’s triumph over life’s obstacles gave me a renewed appreciation for both the movie adaptation and the author’s 1850 novel.


(The novel’s full title, incidentally, is “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery [Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account],” which is quite a mouthful.)

Dev Patel headlines the ethnic-inclusive, racially diverse ensemble cast in the 2019 dramedy about the Victorian era and plays a successful author reflecting upon his difficult childhood.

The movie begins with Patel as a grown-up Copperfield giving a reading of sorts before a captive audience much like Dickens did during his later years with tours and performances.


The English actor Patel may be familiar to U.S. audiences for his roles in “Hotel Mumbai,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and his breakthrough performance in “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The fictitious Copperfield led a nearly idyllic childhood with his doting nanny and his mother with the notable exception of his biological father who died before the boy was born.



Gifted with curiosity and a keen sense of observation, Copperfield’s talent for writing is nurtured by his nanny as he collects idiosyncratic utterances from his acquaintances as he matures.

Copperfield’s young mother remarries but to a cruel man with a heavy hand who moves in along with his strict spinster of a sister, and they quickly send the defiant boy packing to live with others.

From there he is taken in by an oddball collection of characters in the London area who are pivotal and influential in his unconventional upbringing and would later be featured in his novel.

London is the capital and largest city of England and the United Kingdom. Photo by Eva Dang on

The orphaned Copperfield toils away at one of his stepfather’s factories, for instance, but lodges with an impoverished yet kindhearted family whose path he crosses again and again.

The head of the madcap family is played by the Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, who audiences may know as the 12th Doctor of the venerable British sci-fi TV series “Doctor Who.”


The hardworking Copperfield toils away at the bottling factory until one day he is liberated when he is informed by his stepfather that his mother passed away and he decides to run away.

RELATED: Now showing at Lakes 12 Theatre - Week of Aug. 24, 2020

Copperfield is told first his mother is “ill” and “very ill” repeatedly and when he asks, “How ill is she?” someone finally blurts out, “She’s dead,” in a mortifying yet humorous deadpan kind of way.

He meets up with his eccentric paternal aunt played by Tilda Swinton from “Doctor Strange” and her husband played by Hugh Laurie who was the main character in the medical drama “House.”

Laurie encourages the aspiring writer despite his own mental health issues, and Swinton acts as Copperfield’s patron of sorts as he sets off for a career as a proctor and also falls in love.

RELATED: Review: ‘Unhinged’ let loose as new release at Lakes 12 Theatre

To say more than that about the plot would rob a would-be moviegoer the joy of discovering the wondrous tale of grit, perseverance and even joy in a heartwarming tale set in Victorian times.

The motion picture is not a strict adaptation of Dickens’ eighth novel, but it remains faithful to the spirit of the book, which the author admitted in a preface was his favorite among his own works.


The literary classic is perhaps the most autobiographical of Dickens’ creations with references to the harsh and cruel working conditions as a child laborer, and he, too, worked in a factory.

Dickens’ other works include “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities” just to name a few, which often touched upon the unfair plight of the poor.

Frank Lee.jpg
Frank Lee

I often recall someone once said — and I’m paraphrasing, I suppose — that humor is pain plus time, and Copperfield employs that equation to reminisce fondly upon his life and his loves.

Arguably it is the hurts and personal scars that ultimately make us the persons we are today as well as the triumphs and luck in our formative years, and Dickens knows that all too well.



Armando Iannucci created the HBO political satire “Veep” and directed “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” a PG-rated film released theatrically in January in the United Kingdom.

Iannucci co-wrote the screenplay with his “Veep” collaborator Simon Blackwell, and “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is now playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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