The Personal History of David Copperfield review: Armando Iannucci gives Dickens a radical, rollicking twist

Dev Patel makes for an energetic lead in Iannucci’s inspired and fast-paced adaptation of a literary classic.

The Personal History of David Copperfield premieres in the UK on 2 October 2019 at the BFI London Film Festival.

Tom Charity

Dev Patel as David Copperfield in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel as David Copperfield in The Personal History of David Copperfield

With its ostentatiously colourblind casting, not only of the energetic and enterprising Dev Patel as one of Charles Dickens’s typically intrepid, buffeted young wayfarers, but in a slew of roles rich and poor peppered across the chronicle, Armando Iannucci’s rollicking adaptation announces itself as a radical and progressive reclamation of the heritage ‘lit pic’ from the off.

Undaunted by an epically episodic narrative that strains credulity at every turn, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell cannily frame the proceedings as the creative, tragicomic memoirs of the eponymous artist-in-waiting, an act of prodigious and inspired recollection. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Copperfield transports us back to witness his very birth – to a gentle, unassuming young widow – and thence through adventures both merry (sojourns by the sea in an upside down boat) and miserable (carted off to slave in a London bottle factory by a cruel stepfather).

Our unreliable but engagingly ready and eager narrator rattles off these and other reversals with the aplomb of a natural anecdotalist, more than a little fast and loose with the whys and wherefore, but relishing ample opportunities for caricature and gentle – and not so gentle – mockery.

This swift pace and restless mischief-making (at one point a giant hand – Fate? – breaks through the decor to pluck our hero from his short-lived bliss) comes on strong. Surely even good actors could use reining in a bit? But brio won’t be denied, and by the time David is flying kites bedecked with the passing fancies of King Charles I with his aunt Betsey Trotwood (a myopic but resolute Tilda Swinton) and her addled houseguest Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie, delightfully daffy), the movie has definitively taken flight.

Peter Capaldi is surprisingly endearing as the permanently impecunious Mr Micawber – at one point his creditors almost make off with the baby – while Ben Whishaw’s oleaginous Uriah Heap is a curdled portrait of class resentment turned venomous.

Class, and dire economic straits, are at the heart of the matter of course. Zac Nicholson’s dizzy camera is too busy keeping step with the actors to lavish great regard for the traditional staid trappings of upholstery and production design. Buckets are placed under leaky ceilings, fine waistcoats go unpaid for, the have-nots litter the streets of London and when David’s fortunes swing south once more, there is palpable panic, the prospect of ruin all too real and much too close for comfort. Who among us cannot relate?


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