Delightful Dickens: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)


I’d planned to see this in the theater, pre-pandemic, but had to wait until it was finally available for rent online. Because, while my dislike of Charles Dickens‘ work is well-established, I just love the cast of The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020). Starring Dev Patel, who I’ve enjoyed since Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Newsroom (2012-2014), this classic tale is filled with the frock flick veterans like Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Tilda Swinton, plus newer frock faces like Rosalind Eleazar from Harlots (2017-2018) and Howards End (2017).

The novel’s plot is hugely cut and condensed, as is necessary for a movie that runs under 2 hours. This makes for a nice, tidy story though, and lets the often clever dialog shine. The scenes with David and Mr. Micawber (Capaldi) and then David, his Aunt Betsey (Swinton), and Mr. Dick (Laurie) are absolutely the best parts of the film, and that’s about half the movie. The romance(s) that typically take up a great part of these novels are reduced to a subplot in this film, and it’s all the better because of that. I also appreciated the metaphor of David as author writing the story of his life that frames the movie — it gave a lightly bookish feel that’s my jam.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

How can you *not* want to watch these actors?!?

The date isn’t stated in the movie, so we have to deduce it from clues and costumes. David’s father’s tombstone is briefly shown, with a 1841 date for his death, and the boy is born shortly after his father’s death. When David’s an adult, the Palace of Westminster in London is shown under construction, which was started in 1840 and continued for 30 years. It’s not clear how old David is supposed to be — I’d guess he’s at least 20 since he’s got a “proper” job and is ready to get married. So maybe thee main part of the film takes place in the 1860s? But the clothes change from the 1830s to the 1840s ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

When Davey is about 8-10, his mother is wearing this very 1930s dress, so IDK what timeline is going on here.

The look of the film is very bright and fun, unlike some of the drab, dark Dickens adaptions out there that dwell on the misery of child labor and endless cycles of poverty. Sure, Copperfield goes from riches to rags and back again several times in the course of the film, but at a fast clip and even the slummy bits have colorful art direction. Thank goodness, because the colors and pattern mixing help avoid much of the 1840s = death of fashion truism that we know so well around here.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Just out of frame, Mr. Dick’s striped pants & David’s plaid pants.

The costume designer was Suzie Harman, with Robert Worley co-credited. Harman was the designer for four episodes of Vanity Fair (2018) and Worley was her assistant, so I wonder if the situation was similar here. In an interview on Medium, Suzie Harman explained that her designs were part of a larger scheme:

“We worked with the production designer and set dresser to build an individual palette for each character and those around them, but overall would work together as whole visual narrative. Armando [director Armando Iannucci] would always like the stronger of the colour choices we gave him so we never felt we had gone too bold.”

Young Davey wears both color and pattern, which is based in historical examples.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This kid is adorable!

Suzie Harman explained in Medium:

“We researched daguerreotypes of the 1840s and specifically loved the American ones, as the way they would dress in the photographs would be a lot more eccentric and bolder than the British ones which suited our characters perfectly. With this we were able to give the clothes a richer look and a heightened sense of reality which matched the feel of the film and the visuals.”

Here’s a selection from her moodboard of period images, where you can see the inspiration:

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) - Suzie Harman's moodboard

Period images from Suzie Harman’s moodboard.

In London, David stays with Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, who are colorful in their own right. As Harman said: “The Micawbers were in fuchsia pinks and emerald greens with lots of clashing patterns to show a witty, chaotic but fun family.”

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Not only are Mr. Micawber’s clothes colorful (down to his socks), but the shape of his hat gives him a wacky rapscallion look.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Mrs. Micawber, in garish plaid & prints, is sweet & just as wacky as her beloved husband.

From the mixed-up, wild world of his London childhood, David goes to his Aunt Betsey’s pastoral home that’s warm and inviting but has it’s own brand of wacky. Which has been foreshadowed in the very first scene, when we saw Betsey in a rich teal 1830s gown:

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Very 1830s for David’s birth scene.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Tilda Swinton = worth the price of admission in any movie.

Then, when adult David comes to live with Betsey, she’s wearing bright yellowy-orange. As Harman said:

“We wanted a bolder colour for Betsey that showed her strength of character but that was also incredibly warm — she is Mr. Dick’s carer after all but has always been portrayed as a hard spinster in the past. The orange colour reminded me of ginger biscuits!”

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Don’t mind me, I’m just admiring the smocking at the top of the sleeves.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

OK, so 1840s is still the death of fashion, but I like a little fan-front bodice action sometimes.

This is also where David meets Agnes Wickfield. She wears a lot of black / grey / white, with just a little color added. I did wish her hair was up the whole time because it looked great when it was. I can’t think of any particular character / plot reason why it was sometimes down.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Mr. Wickfield has a short, rounded hat which emphasizes his short, roundedness.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

I get that it’s supposed to be romantic ‘n stuff, but her dress shouldn’t be showing that much shoulder. Combined with loose hair, it looks modern.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Digging the zigzag stripe print on this dress.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Then she starts wearing her hair up nor no particular reason. Though this hat feels more 1950s than anything Victorian to me. Cool print on the dress.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Workday look, hair up, OK.

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Then her fanciest outfit (also worn at the theater).

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Odd that her neck is unbuttoned but otherwise looks sharp.

Aunt Betsey sends David to school where he meets Lord Steerforth:

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Yes, it can be done, you can have principle characters wearing hats in a film! Stylish tall hats, slightly different fashions suited to each character even!

And the super-snooty Mrs. Steerforth:

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

She is a badass!

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Her hair is SO right for the period!

And, of course, David falls in love with Dora Spenlow:

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

She wears this ruffled thing & a couple gowns that look very much like it. And she has a dog. She’s kind of annoying & luckily not a huge part of the plot.

David himself gets a decent wardrobe at times, although as Suzie Harman said:

“A lot of the characters, as you say, go from rags to riches and vice versa, but we decided not to change their looks but to keep the character the same so you feel for them when their change of circumstance happens.”

Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

He’s so dreamy!



Will you check out this latest Dickens adaption?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

17 Responses

  1. Shashwat

    They did a really great job at the 1840s(which,I admit blasphemously,is not the death of fashion when early 1860s exist).Some of the colour choices like the pink and greens did feel a bit veering towards fashionable 50s instead of the 40s,but maybe that’s just me.

  2. Constance

    I dislike Dickens too much to try any of the thousands of adaptations, though this looks watchable…

  3. NuitsdeYoung

    A lot of this was shot in my neighbourhood in Hull! I didn’t see any of the actors, but I saw the street around the corner being set-dressed and Murdstone’s cart in the street!

  4. Lee Jones

    Not a big “David Copperfield” fan, but I might give it a chance.

  5. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m not a fan of Dickens, but as others have mentioned, this looks watchable, especially with Tilda and the dreamy Dev. Why is Mrs Steerforth a Mrs when her son, is a Lord? Also the cast looks good together. Very cohesive.
    BTW they’ve started filming Gentlemen Jack Season 2.

  6. mmcquown

    Swinton, Laurie, Capaldi and Patel? Yes, I’ll watch it! For a few years, I did Dickens, but Political Correctness killed Christmas, and Dickens went with it. I just wish someone would do a story about Dickens’ love life. When he was cited as a hero for helping save lives after a big train wreck, it was his mistress he was with, not his wife.

  7. Frannie Germeshausen

    Thanks for writing this. We’ll give it a whirl. Dora is a drip, but I love her fluffy pup!

  8. Lynne Connolly

    I absolutely love Dickens! Colourful, adventurous, dazzling writing skills. Dora is the wettest of the wets, but she’s David’s youthful folly, not a character to admire.
    This cast is brilliant. Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my watch list now!

    • MoHub

      For a minute there, I thought I was the only Dickens lover here.

      • Cinci

        Nope, we Dickens lovers are here! I love his realistic stories.
        How can you not love Bleak House with Gillian Anderson and Carey Milligan 😍 “Shake me up Judy” 😂😂😂

  9. Kelly

    Thanks for this–I just watched it two nights ago! Was gobsmacked at the little plaid shirts on the Victorian children (because I had questioned that in the film)–and that little dude who played young David was so sweet!! I nominate Dev Patel to be the next Doctor Who–he can keep his costumes from this movie! And even though Dora is totally annoyingly drippy in the book, this woman did a nice job (she also, slightly weirdly/Oedipally? played David’s mother). She was self-aware that a way that the novel’s character isn’t, and is rather heartbreaking when she offers to hold the pens to make herself useful, and then voluntarily writes herself out of the story–which replaces the obligatory poignant-death-scene in the novel.
    David’s teal/tan print waistcoat shows up on Mr. Dick at the end of the film; I liked that, as sort of a “Cool waistcoat, dude, can I borrow that sometime?”

    • Jennifer L. Schillig

      I haven’t seen this yet, but I am aware of the change in the story regarding Dora’s fate. I’d love to ask Armando Ianucci why he chose to go this route. Is it because killing Dora off has some rather unfortunate implications…you know, “if a woman isn’t capable of keeping house then she’s only fit for the grave”? Or is it because of the parallels to Dickens’ own life? DC was Dickens’ most autobiographical novel, and Dora was a stand-in for the two women Dickens had loved up to that point…Maria Beadnell was the flighty, girlish, childlike side of Dora and his own wife Catherine was (supposedly) the model for the hopeless-at-housekeeping-or-practical-responsibility side of her. Could Ianucci have thought that Dora’s death from the novel was a little too nasty on Dickens’ part, especially considering how he later treated Catherine?

  10. Nzie

    This was advertised to me a lot and the cast is fantastic, but I wasn’t sure what to expect with the director–like, Death of Stalin was brilliant but it seemed to reflect a very specific style/viewpoint/artistic vision that made me less certain of this. Glad to hear it was enjoyable; I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  11. Kate D

    Ooooh, I am IN for this!

    I love Dickens (guess I’m in the minority!), though David Copperfield isn’t my favorite (Bleak House has my heart), mainly I was always annoyed at David for marrying Dora and then felt she died super conveniently, so he could realize Agnes had been the one the whole time. Maybe realistic young man folly, but kinda painful to read.

    This adaptation looks colorful and wonderful and right up my alley!!

  12. Kate Dominguez

    Just watched this. I loved it!!! It was so fast paced and colorful, like the 2020 Emma. So fun!