The Personal History of David Copperfield
Dev Patel is as charming as he's ever been in this gem of a Dickens adaptation — which might just be writer/director Armando Iannucci’s most delightful affair yet.
July 03, 2020
He's skewered British, American and Russian politics in The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin. This year, in the eerily prescient Avenue 5, he pondered what would happen if a group of people were confined on a cruise of sorts — a luxury space voyage — for an extended stretch of time. But, made in period comedy mode, The Personal History of David Copperfield might just be Armando Iannucci's most delightful affair yet. Indeed, playfully trifling with a Charles Dickens classic suits the writer/director. It should; he's a huge fan of the 19th-century author, and a staunch believer that Dickens' body of work "isn't just quality entertainment for a long-dead audience" (as he told viewers in his 2012 BBC special Armando's Tale of Charles Dickens). And so, taking on the acclaimed scribe's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, Iannucci tinkers, massages and re-envisages David Copperfield with ample love for the literary source material. In the process, he also crafts a still Victorian era-set yet unmistakably modern — and fresh, very funny and sharp-witted — big-screen adaptation.
The eponymous character's tale begins in the film as it does on the page: with Copperfield determined to discover whether he shall turn out to be the hero of his own life "or whether that station will be held by anybody else". On-screen, the hopeful aspiring writer (Dev Patel) delivers that statement from a stage while speaking to a crowd. Then, in one of the many inventive visual flourishes that mark Iannucci's lively retelling, Copperfield strolls through the background to revisit his experiences from the moment of his birth. Though he enters the world to a doting mother, Clara (Morfydd Clark), his isn't a childhood filled with unfettered happiness. The joy he feels in his earliest days (as played by Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani) — and when his beloved nanny Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper) takes him to visit her family, who live in an upturned boat that doubles as a beach house — subsides quickly when Clara remarries. Not only is his new stepfather (Darren Boyd) stern, cruel, violent and accompanied by an equally unpleasant sister (Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie), but he sends the boy off to London to work in his factory.
As episodic on the screen as it is in the book, Copperfield's life then navigates a rollercoaster of ups and downs — starting with the drudgery of child labour, as well as time spent lodging with the poverty-stricken, law-skirting but always kindly Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family. After tragedy strikes, Copperfield moves in with his donkey-hating great-aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her equally eccentric houseguest Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie); however, though his situation appears to improve, the cycle from wealth to poverty and back again just keeps turning. As Dickens was, Iannucci and his frequent co-scribe Simon Blackwell (Peep Show, Breeders) are well aware of class chasms, the tough plights endured by the masses to benefit the better-off, the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism in general and humanity's selfish, self-serving nature. The Personal History of David Copperfield may be largely upbeat in tone, visibly bright and dynamic, and take a few shrewd liberties with the story, but the darker elements of the narrative never escape view.
Nor, as is to be expected given Iannucci's political satire prowess, do The Personal History of David Copperfield's contemporary parallels and relevance evade attention. Watching the twists and turns of Copperfield's life, it's easy to see how little some things have changed (attitudes towards everyone who isn't rich, white, powerful and male, especially, particularly in Brexit-era Britain) even 170 years after David Copperfield was first published. Heightening this perception is the movie's colour-blind casting, which not only extends to Patel's leading role, but to Doctor Strange's Benedict Wong, Harlots' Rosalind Eleazar and Avenue 5's Nikki Amuka-Bird in key parts (among other on-screen performers). No one mentions race; however, as also seen in the other recent and exceptional example of purposefully inclusive casting — musical sensation Hamilton — reframing this story to include and champion diverse backgrounds leaves a firm imprint.
That makes The Personal History of David Copperfield as perceptive as it is jovial, jaunty, hilarious and spirited. In other words, it makes it a classic addition to Iannucci's resume. He's never shown as much visual creativity as he does here — deploying split-screen imagery, rear-projecting memories on giant tarpaulins, brandishing colourful costumes, favouring theatrical wide-angle lensing and even harking back to 1920s silent cinema — but he's astute as he's always been across his career. As always, that extends to his choice of actors in general, with the perfectly cast Patel as charming and thoughtful as he's ever been; Swinton, Capaldi and Laurie all put to stellar comic use; and Ben Whishaw suitably shady as the conniving Uriah Heep. With this gem of a sharp, savvy and supremely entertaining film, Iannucci doesn't just update Dickens for a modern audience or show that the author's work is still pertinent, but creates one of the great page-to-screen adaptations.