Australian Council on Children and the Media

Personal History of David Copperfield, The

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Not suitable under 10; parental guidance to 12 (scary scenes, themes and violence)

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This topic contains:

  • overall comments and recommendations
  • details of classification and consumer advice lines for Personal History of David Copperfield, The
  • a review of Personal History of David Copperfield, The completed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) on 6 July 2020.

Overall comments and recommendations

Children under 10 Not suitable due to scary scenes, themes and violence.
Children aged 10–12 Parental guidance recommended due to scary scenes, themes and violence.
Children aged 13 and over Ok for this age group.

About the movie

This section contains details about the movie, including its classification by the Australian Government Classification Board and the associated consumer advice lines.

Name of movie: Personal History of David Copperfield, The
Classification: PG
Consumer advice lines: Mild themes and violence
Length 119 minutes

ACCM review

This review of the movie contains the following information:

A synopsis of the story

This modern version of Dickens' classic tale begins with David Copperfield (Dev Patel) relating his life story to an audience. His father died before he was born and his mother, Clara (Morfydd Clark), brings him up as a young gentleman. The young David's (Ranveer Jaiswal) life is completely overturned when Clara meets and marries a Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd). Murdstone moves in with his equally cruel and cold sister, Jane (Gwendoline Christie), and David is sent away to stay with the maid, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), who lives at Yarmouth in an upside-down boat. When David returns home, his stepfather treats him cruelly for not performing well at his studies and sends him to London to work in Murdstone's bottle making factory.

While in London, David lodges with a Mr Micawber (Peter Capoldi), his wife and five children. Micawber ends up in debtors’ prison and the family is thrown out onto the streets. David's life continues to take a series of twists and turns with rises and steep falls. Micawber and Peggotty both continue to appear throughout David's fascinating life, as well as other characters such as sly Uriah Heep. In the end, David is encouraged to write his story down and thus becomes a writer.

Themesinfo

Children and adolescents may react adversely at different ages to themes of crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, death, serious illness, family breakdown, death or separation from a parent, animal distress or cruelty to animals, children as victims, natural disasters and racism. Occasionally reviews may also signal themes that some parents may simply wish to know about.

19th century England; poverty; loss of a parent; step-parenting; tragedy and triumph.

Use of violenceinfo

Research shows that children are at risk of learning that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution when violence is glamourised, performed by an attractive hero, successful, has few real life consequences, is set in a comic context and / or is mostly perpetrated by male characters with female victims, or by one race against another.

Repeated exposure to violent content can reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution. Repeated exposure also increases the risks that children will become desensitised to the use of violence in real life or develop an exaggerated view about the prevalence and likelihood of violence in their own world.

There is some violence in this movie including:

  • Clara is seen screaming in pain during labour.
  • Murdstone yells at David for not reciting his book properly. David answers him back and Murdstone grabs him by the neck, drags him upstairs and takes him into a bedroom. Thrashing can be heard (not shown). David bites him in the scuffle.
  • David walks 23 miles to Dover and along the way he is robbed by a highwayman.
  • Aunt Trotwood yells at a woman and a boy to get their donkeys off her garden. She kicks the woman off the donkey.
  • David yells at the donkeys and tells them to move off or he'll “turn them into stew”.
  • Jane gets her arm caught in the chopping machine.
  • David challenges another young man to a fight. David gets hit a few times and is seen covered in blood.
  • David tells Uriah Heep that he “has a mind to throw the cake at him and break a rib”.
  • David's friend, James Steerforth, tells him that when he was a child he threw a hammer at his mother.
  • When Uriah Heep is exposed as a fraud, he starts yelling at everyone. He slaps Aunt Trotwood who slaps him back. David then hits him.

Material that may scare or disturb children

Under fiveinfo

Children under five are most likely to be frightened by scary visual images, such as monsters, physical transformations.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children under the age of five, including the following:

  • 19th century England is very grim with lots of poor people and homeless people living on the streets.
  • An old woman lives with Peggotty who is toothless and scary looking.
  • Many of the characters are somewhat eccentric with unusual looks.

Aged five to eightinfo

Children aged five to eight will also be frightened by scary visual images and will also be disturbed by depictions of the death of a parent, a child abandoned or separated from parents, children or animals being hurt or threatened and / or natural disasters.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes and scary visual images, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged five to eight, including the following:

  • A young girl is seen gutting fish with her hands covered in blood.
  • Peggotty lives with her niece and nephew who are both orphans after their parents drowned.
  • While remembering his happy time living in the upside-down boat, David sees a larger than life hand come crashing through the roof.
  • Murdstone and his sister are both imposing and intimidating characters.
  • The bottle factory is full of children having to work. The children tease David because of his “posh” speech.
  • The boss of the factory is a large scary man with a gravelly voice. He calls David the “biting boy” and makes him wear a sign with, “He Bites” written on it.
  • At the Micawber house, David is the only one with a meal at the dinner table. He offers to share it and all the children and adults tuck in leaving him very little.
  • James comes sailing back to shore during a fierce thunderstorm. Ham goes out to rescue him. The boat is seen tossed about on the waves. As Ham reaches the boat, James falls back into the water. His body is washed up on shore. James' mother and Emily both weep.

Aged eight to thirteeninfo

Children aged eight to thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic threats and dangers, violence or threat of violence and / or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

In addition to the above mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged eight to thirteen, including the following:

  • While Murdstone is thrashing David, Clara stands outside the bedroom door, crying and pleading with him not to do it. Jane prevents Clara from going in to save her son.
  • Micawber threatens to cut his throat with a razor because he wants to end it all. His wife says she'll join him, but they don't.
  • An older boy in the bottle factory is seen with only one arm.
  • The bailiffs come to the Micawber house and take out all their possessions. The Micawbers are left destitute and Mr Micawber is put into debtors’ prison.
  • David's stepfather and his sister arrive at the factory to tell David that his mother has died and that they've already had the funeral. David is distraught by this news and smashes several bottles in the factory.
  • Mr Dick is a character who is obsessed with King Charles the First and how he had his head chopped off.
  • Aunt Trotwood becomes financially ruined and has her home taken away. She ends up living in very poor digs with David and Mr Dick.
  • James helps to cut up the fish and waves a knife around saying he could be a murderer.
  • David finds Micawber and his family living on the streets. He brings them all home to his poor lodgings.
  • Uriah Heep is a particularly nasty character. He appears to be humble and ingratiating but is all the time plotting to take over Wickfield's financial enterprises.

Over thirteeninfo

Children over the age of thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic physical harm or threats, molestation or sexual assault and / or threats from aliens or the occult.

Nothing further of concern.

Product placement

  • None noted.

Sexual references

There are some sexual references in this movie, including:

  • James runs away with Peggotty's niece Emily who was engaged to her cousin Ham.
  • David falls in love with Dora – they kiss occasionally.
  • Agnes Wickfield is in love with David and they eventually marry.

Nudity and sexual activity

  • None noted.

Use of substances

There is some use of substances in this movie, including:

  • Quite a lot of drinking throughout. Mr Wickfield is an alcoholic and is always craving a drink. His love of drink is often mentioned.
  • Drinking is seen at various events, at dinner, galas, etc.
  • David and his school friends get drunk at a dinner at his house. They go to a theatre and behave badly.
  • David smokes at one point.

Coarse language

There is little coarse language in this movie, including:

  • “damnation”.

In a nutshell

The Personal History of David Copperfield is an abridged version of the Dickens' classic novel. Many of the nasty incidents have been removed which makes it more appropriate for older children and teens. There are several unpleasant characters and 19th century England is certainly grim. The story is also quite complex and is therefore not recommended for children under 10 and parental guidance is recommended for children aged 10 – 12.

The main messages from this movie are that perseverance is rewarded; compassion is a great virtue; and overcoming adversity is an important ability.

Values in this movie that parents may wish to reinforce with their children include:

  • Compassion
  • Kindness
  • Honesty
  • Perseverance
  • The ability to overcome adversity
  • A positive outlook
  • Stoicism.

This movie could also give parents the opportunity to discuss with their children attitudes and behaviours, and their real-life consequences, such as:

  • How difficult life was in the 19th century and that many people lived in abject poverty.
  • Why was Uriah Heep such a nasty person? He managed to worm his way to the top but fortunately was found out. What makes people behave like this?

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