▶︎ The Personal History of David Copperfield is on DVD, Blu-ray, BFI Player and other digital platforms

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

Undaunted by an epically episodic narrative that strains credulity at every turn, Iannucci and co-screenwriter 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 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 wherefores, but relishing ample opportunities for caricature and gentle – and not so gentle – mockery.

null
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This swift pace and restless mischief-making (at one point a giant hand – Fate? – breaks through the decor to pluck our hero from 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 house guest Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie, delightfully daffy), the movie has definitively taken flight.

Peter Capaldi is surprisingly endearing as the permanently impecunious Mr Micawber, while Ben Whishaw’s oleaginous Uriah Heep 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 much attention on 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?

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Originally published: 10 September 2019