“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
So David Copperfield writes, and so he tells his audience at the film’s outset. He’s narrating his story—or, at least, his story so far. You might call it’s a riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-you-get-the-idea sort of tale; a story full of drama and comedy and love and death and lapdogs and heavy teacakes and bottles. So many bottles.
But it’s not his story alone. Everyone, it seemed, wanted David to be someone he wasn’t. His dear aunt Betsey stormed into the Copperfield country house just in time for his birth, then stormed out again when she learned that David was a boy. His tyrant stepfather, Edward Murdstone, wanted David to bow and cow before him. And when young Copperfield bit him instead, Mr. Murdstone shipped him off to the family factory, leaving the lad to grow up in near squalor.
He was called Davy and Daisy and Doady and Trotwood—the last given to him by his dear aunt Betsey. (“If I’m going to financially support my nephew, I want to like his name,” she explains.) Some thought him a gentleman, others a gutter rat, and a few knew him to be a bit of both.
Perhaps the same could be said of us, of the different names we’ve had and games we’ve played. Though separated by nearly two centuries since Charles Dickins first introduced us to David Copperfield, we may have more in common with our young protagonist than we’d at first imagine.
Because, above all, David Copperfield is a story about growing up.
Is David Copperfield the hero of his own story? The answer to that is a resounding … sometimes. He can be both kindhearted and clearheaded, and he gradually comes to a better, wiser understanding of what he should be about. Not all of us ever grow into that blend of idealism and pragmatism; if we did, we might find ourselves happier and more fulfilled for it.
In fact, few people here are straight-up heroes, with the possible exception of the very level-headed Agnes Wickfield (who is instrumental in ultimately reversing a grievous wrong). Even some of the most sympathetic characters have weaknesses to go with their strengths. Aunt Betsey is as eccentric as aunts come, but she’s both kindly and generous in her own brittle way. Her cousin, Mr. Dick, is clearly insane. And yet he can be very incisive and almost always quite gentle. Wilkins Micawber is a dapper-dressed destitute who plays his concertina quite poorly, manages his finances terribly and yet cares for young David when the boy could’ve been out on the streets.
Peggotty, the Copperfield family’s housekeeper, was perhaps the best, kindliest influence on David during his earliest days. She’s fun and gentle, and she inspired the young master to write down his thoughts and observations—all of which proved to be very beneficial to David as he grew.
When introduced to Peggotty, Aunt Betsey wonders aloud how she got her name. “Did your mother sneeze when you were christened?” she asks. (In reality, Peggotty is her surname.)
Emma Micawber, the long-suffering wife of perpetually indebted Wilkins Micawber, suggests to David as they’re just about to part company that it’s just like that Bible story—though she’s not sure which one. “There must be a Bible story” that sums up their feelings, she surmises.
We see churches in the background and hear that a proctor is “sort of a monkish attorney.” David refers to the Murdstones as “ghosts.”
Ham Peggotty (the housekeeper’s son) is engaged to a girl named Emily, but she becomes smitten with someone else and runs off with him. Much later, she’s found in London, deserted by her lover and with an illegitimate child or two in tow. (In Dickens’ original story, Emily is on the verge of being forced into prostitution when she’s discovered, and one of the themes of the novel is the plight of the “fallen woman.”)
As a young man, David falls head-over-heels for the beautiful-but-silly Dora Spenlow. He speaks often of his love for her, and—just like a love-struck high schooler—finds that everything he sees reminds him of her. (In a rather fantastical sequence, we see a gruff coach driver wearing what appears to be Dora’s distinctive curls, and David even sees her blond tresses covering the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral.
James Steerforth, one of David’s upper-crust school chums, is always asking if someone has a “sister,” apparently seeking out a romantic partner. Jane Murdstone, Edward’s sister, laments that she couldn’t attend her brother’s wedding to Clara Copperfield (David’s mother) and thus missed “a chance to meet you at the peak of your beauty,” a very Victorian slam.
David eventually gets married. Some women wear shoulder-baring garb.
As a boy, David runs headlong into the no-nonsense ways of his new stepfather, Edward Murdstone. When David seems to fall behind in his studies and talks back, Edward drags David upstairs and compares him to a disobedient horse or dog. And what does Edward do with such an animal? “I beat him. I conquer him.” Even if he bleeds the animal dry, Edward insists he will be master. David responds by biting Edward, and Edward shortly thereafter sends David to London to work in his factory. The foreman forces the boy to wear a sign that says, “He bites.”
We see shadowy flashbacks to Edward’s savage beatings. As an adult, David gets into a fight with a villager—one in which Copperfield is soundly thrashed. (We see him get punched in the face a few times, and later someone kindly tends to some bleeding cuts on his face as he lies on a divan, still wearing his blood-covered shirt.) A man and a woman slap each other repeatedly before another guy slugs the first man square in the jaw.
Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey’s cousin, is obsessed with King Charles I, who was beheaded back in the 17th century. He believes Charles’ thoughts at death landed somehow in his own mind, and he occasionally asks people if his own head is still attached to his body. Mr. Dick’s room is covered with both King Charles’ dark thoughts (written down by Mr. Dick, of course) and pictures of his decapitated cranium.
Someone dies in a horrible storm—a death that may be at least partly an act of suicide. A couple of people occasionally knock other people off donkeys. Mr. Micawber sometimes gets into scuffles with his creditors. Fish are gorily gutted. Bottles are broken. Mr. Micawber and his wife sometimes engage in dramatic scenes that (they threaten) will end in bloody suicide.
None, though an occasional Victorian insult is hurled.
Mr. Wickfield, Aunt Betsey’s solicitor, has a love of liquor. Throughout much of the movie his attraction to wine and sherry is treated as a joke. Betsey and others try politely, if a bit desperately, to keep the attorney away from alcohol and, when unsuccessful, to explain away his inebriation. (When Wickfield nearly falls on his face during an outdoor party, for instance, Betsey suggests that the ground is dangerously uneven, calling for someone to put up a warning sign.) But eventually, the man’s weakness for alcohol is manipulated and exploited, to the near ruin of many.
David is no teetotaler himself. When some old school friends come for a visit, he hosts them extravagantly: Everyone drinks to wild excess, and David seems to be the most drunk of them all. They all stagger off to the theater, where they make even greater fools of themselves. When Aunt Betsey sees the evidence the next morning, she quips, “Have you returned to the bottling business of your youth?”
Betsey also tries to pour medicine into someone’s mouth, only later realizing that the bottle actually contains salad dressing.
Mr. Micawber is a bit of a scam artist, working his way into a school as a Latin teacher (even though he clearly doesn’t know a bit of Latin). He is also constantly on the run from creditors, sneaking off and lying to escape them when the need arises. (When David finds himself on hard times, he uses some of the same techniques.)
We see and hear about chamber pots, and one elderly lady clearly has some serious stomach issues. (When she warns the household she’s living in that she’s about to become violently ill, the lady of the house says that’s just fine; the floor is all sand anyway.)
Someone steals something from a pawn shop. (“Run!” The newly minted thief shouts. “I am a criminal!”) Someone laments that her investments shares have “plummeted like lead droppings from a stone goose.”
David Copperfield, the book, is considered by most literary experts to be Charles Dickens’ greatest novel—a whimsical story that, underneath its outlandish characters and rambling plot is a tight, well-constructed work of genius. Written in the style of an autobiography, it’s also considered the most autobiographical of Dickens’ books. Dickens, like David Copperfield, worked in a factory beginning at age 12, and it’s widely assumed that the eccentric destitute Mr. Micawber was based on Dickens’ own father.
The Personal History of David Copperfield doesn’t retell Dickens’ original story wholesale. Indeed, the movie differs quite a bit from the book in its particulars, making it an unwise choice for lazy English majors looking for a way to escape the novel itself.
But the film captures the spirit of Dickens and, thanks to some great performances by Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi and Rosalind Eleazar, illuminates some of his most delightfully weird characters. Dev Patel (most notably of Slumdog Millionaire fame) makes a great David Copperfield, capturing both the comedy and heartbreak essential to the character. Released during the coronavirus pandemic, The Personal History of David Copperfield may be one of the great hidden gems of the coronavirus era.
And for families here’s the great part: It’s as clean as you’d expect a period dramedy to be—and entertaining enough to perhaps capture the whimsey of even children of a certain character.
It’s not a perfect film, of course. No film is, and parents should be aware of the light-hearted way alcoholism is treated here. And certainly, many of the characters suffer here—none more so than David himself.
Is David Copperfield the hero of his own life? That’s up for the reader—and in this case the viewer—to judge. But while David himself may not always be a “good” person, this movie almost always is a “good” movie, however one chooses to define it.
And that, 170 years removed from its original writing, is good news indeed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.