Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci – best known for politi-TV shows The Thick Of It and Veep, and superb 2017 historical comedy The Death of Stalin (opens in new tab) – might not seem like the most obvious candidate to direct a Charles Dickens adaptation, but The Personal History of David Copperfield thoroughly disproves that notion.
Iannucci doesn’t bend the material to suit his style – there’s no fly-on-the-wall shaky-cam or extravagant swearing here – but rather brings out Dickens’ inherent humour in an adaptation that manages to feel fresh without alienating purists. It’s an impressive feat, especially as the ubiquitous and generally dreary Dickens adaps on the small screen often feel like homework.
There’s a clever flip of perspective, that comes from the inside out. The film is framed by the grown-up Copperfield (Dev Patel), telling his life story to a theatre audience, sprinkling on an added layer of meta intrigue – how far do you edit the story of your life in your own head? It makes this particular take on the story feel extremely... well, personal. There are some smart flourishes as Copperfield examines his own life as a spectator, from his birth, to his picaresque childhood and adolescence as he undulates along the peaks and troughs of the social strata, never entirely sure where he fits in.
Patel makes an appealing lead, pairing puppyish charm with barely concealed insecurity, and there’s a roll call of British talent in the supporting line-up, making the most of Dickens’ knack for larger than life supporting characters, whose are as twisted and unique as their names. Particularly delightful are Tilda Swinton, as the eccentric (what else) aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who takes David in for a spell, and Hugh Laurie, as the amiably guileless cousin of said aunt. Ben Whishaw sporting a frightful bowl-cut is tremendous fun as the conniving Uriah Heep, and The Thick Of It star Peter Capaldi is Mr Micawber, one of David’s many substitute parents. (In another subtle meta touch that might even go unnoticed, Morfydd Clark plays both David’s mother and later his dotty paramour, Dora. Whether this oedipal projection is coming from Iannucci or David is fun to ponder.)
There’s a toned-down Wes Anderson-esque whimsy here, both in the outre supporting plays and the compositions and stylistic tics. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson brings a vibrancy to the frame, both in terms of the frequently wide-skied and sunny settings, and the sprightly camera moves that invigorate proceedings without overdosing on the gimmicks. The score, also by Christopher Willis, cleaves close to the classical style you’d expect from a Victorian era tale, but it’s given a buoyant boost of optimism.
Though the journey’s a familiar one, the film’s ‘colour-blind’ casting – which ranges from the title character and beyond – also helps when it comes to refreshing the source material. It makes it more relevant to contemporary audiences, who’ll also find much to relate to in the film, even though the modern-day parallels aren’t highlighted with a heavy hand.
As a film about interpreting your own life story, and focusing on the most interesting details, The Personal History Of David Copperfield also knows how to fillet Dickens’ doorstopper down to a manageable two hours. It feels like a film that can’t sit still, and while there are occasional episodes you wish would linger on a little longer, and the passage of time - and relative age of the protagonist - is not always clear, the clip it moves at, and the frequency of the laugh-out-loud moments make for a rare period piece that should prove a four-quandrant crowdpleaser.