On first glance, Armando Iannucci and Charles Dickens may seem rather unlikely bedfellows. As the man behind The Thick Of It and Veep, Iannucci’s TV bread and butter is frequently foul-mouthed and fools around with structural farce. Yet those Dickens’ stalwart subjects of social satire and political commentary mean that his novel, published over 150 years ago, shares much of what drives Iannucci’s feature-length work such as the biting In The Loop, and ‘how did you mine comedy from THAT’ feature, The Death of Stalin.
I haven’t read the source material, or indeed much Dickens, and so from a literary point of view, this review will be lacking. However, regardless of the origins of the tale, Iannucci’s spin on Victorian England in The Personal History of David Copperfield is nothing short of a delight. With a combination of a large talented cast led by Dev Patel (once again amazing us with his seemingly endless range) and a visual style that conjures influences such as Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Iannucci’s own flair, David Copperfield is the surreal comedy-drama blend you didn’t know you needed.
Narrated as an ‘accidental’ memoir David Copperfield uses a frequent fourth-wall breaking approach to follow the story of the eponymous star (Patel) and the various twists and turns his life takes from childhood to middle age. Much like Michael Winterbottom’s ‘impossible to film’ adaptation of A Cock and Bull Story, Patel’s wry and witty Copperfield pulls aside curtain-thin walls to lead us, the audience, through his memories: all whilst acknowledging his own fallibility in their retelling.
Whether as a boy abused by a strict step-father and sent to work at a factory, a youth placed with charming debt-dodging guardians, or an adult with a benefactor working hard to better his social standing, the tale of David Copperfield is one where many players and events pass through the protagonist’s life and leave their influence behind.
Race-blind casting allows any performer from any background to fill any role, thus the film is filled out with a star-studded list of actors all utilised to their best. Benedict Wong’s underrated comedy chops are showcased as drunken lawyer Mr Wickfield, as are Tilda Swinton’s comedic abilities when her Betsy Trotwood breezes in with talk of bad luck and how things must be. Hugh Laurie, Rosalind Eleazar, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Peter Capaldi, Ben Wishaw… the list of excellent performers goes on.
Such a large cast does mean that many characters rotate in and out and tend to stay within their pre-defined areas. Growth is reserved for Patel’s Copperfield who goes through a journey hitting all manner of ups and downs. The sumptuous visuals make each twist and turn stunningly presented. When the young David visits the family of housemaid Mrs. Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper) the upturned boat that is their home rivals any shot framed by Wes Anderson. Even when the Dickens storytelling gets a little glued up (the sequence in boys school Salem House feels like spinning plates we’ll need for later) the eye-popping colours and wide shots will keep you engaged.
Iannucci has done with The Personal History of David Copperfield what many Dickens adaptations struggle with: inject a healthy dose of fun. Dickens’ oft stilted characters can become cumbersome and weighty in movie adaptations. Here they leap from the screen and give you such a warm handshake that you are halfway through the movie before you get a chance to catch your breath.
Capaldi’s Fagin-like Mr Micawber dances around his own financial fears in a take that is endlessly amusing. Morfydd Clark imbues her empty-headed Dora Spenlow with such well-meaning that even when it is clear to all that her match to David is a bad one for both of them, there is still an affection to hold on to.
The central theme of David Copperfield, (among many, many themes) is that of identity. Dev Patel’s earnest good nature even when battling through what other people want him to be is contrasted by the sneaky Uriah Heap (Wishaw) whose social prostrations hide a sharp ability to exploit any situation to his gain.
From Dev Patel addressing a theatre audience in the opening moments before striding off into the literal scene of his own birth, we are guided by a deft lead and confident direction through the many trials of life. And, when expressed through a movie as fun as this, what a joy that can be.
Words by Mike Record