Armando Iannucci, a man possessing a preternatural gift for telling serious stories with a puckish twist, has taken on the classic Dickens tale of David Copperfield, and infused it with sparkling new life while remaining true to the original’s spirit. After all, despite his sometimes cloying sentimentality, Dickens spared his readers nothing when describing the social failings of his era that allowed children to waste away in factories, women to be reduced to chattel, and the law to be a tool of the powerful to oppress the weak. Along with co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell, his collaborator on IN THE LOOP and VEEP, Iannucci has distilled the novel’s sprawling plot down to its essence, taking an approach that is playfully absurd, emotionally gripping, and run through with a damning Dickensian social commentary vigorously lurking beneath the action. The result is a nimble film full of wit, intelligence, and compassion.
It opens with David (Dev Patel) standing before a theatre audience commencing the story of his eventful, usually fraught, life encompassing tragedy, farce, romance, poverty, riches, and betrayal. Shortly after the famous opening line about whether or not he will be the hero of his own film, the stage on which he stands opens up, and he strides right into the action. There he is, physically present at his birth, all but colliding with faithful servant Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) as his mother (Morfydd Clark) labors away to bring him into the world. It’s a device used sparingly but effectively, as the tale unfolds via the scraps of paper on which the narrator has jotted down notable quotes and perceptive observations of those richly drawn characters with which Dickens has gifted him.
Iannucci indulges in the luxury of color-blind casting, allowing the best actors to be cast in each role, and also rousing the audience out of complacency when confronted with a familiar story, and to find, novel, correspondences. One can’t help but see the evils of British colonialism at work in the person of Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), Copperfield’s quietly brutal step-father and the first of many villains of the piece, as he brutalizes the young David, played boy and man by actors of South Asian pedigree. Beyond that, Iannucci invites us to reconsider other characters is different ways. He does something truly remarkable with Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw), making him no less abhorrent with his aggressive humility and malevolent ambition than Dickens intended. But Iannucci and Wishaw subtly express the roots of his twisted personality in the class system that did the twisting, making him simultaneously despicable and pitiable, yet still allowing us the joy of seeing him (spoiler alert) get his comeuppance. His casting of Clark as both David’s mother and the sweet but hopelessly useless Dora may border on the cliché, but only because it lacks the striking originality of what surrounds it. There is adequate compensation for that in Iannuccci’s radical take on the character of Mr. Dick, which deserves several volumes of discussion all by itself, starting with Hugh Laurie’s performance rife with layered melancholy amid the expected childlike delight as the wise fool burdened with more than a simple mind.
There is a raucous refinement to the proceedings thanks to Iannuci’s carefully composed chaos and sprightly dialogue that can be lethally barbed , bitingly arch, or achingly poignant. All of it delivered by that ci-mentioned sterling, cast. Start with Tilda Swinton as David’s formidable Aunt Betsey, whose abrasiveness is here slyly revealed as the brittle overcompensation for youthful disappointments. Move on to Peter Capaldi, a worthy successor to both Fields and Richardson, as the impecunious Micawber of large family, larger personality, and flowery vocabulary whose oft-repeated certainty that something will turn up has an unmistakable wistful note tempering the unflagging optimism.
Led by Patel as the perfect embodiment of a plucky, full-hearted hero who longs to find his place in the world, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is a delectable cinematic experience. Those who know the story well will be just as invigorated by it as those who are approaching it for the first time. And for them, there could not possibly be a better introduction.