Truth and Movies

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Review by Lou Thomas @London_Lou

Directed by

Armando Iannucci

Starring

Dev Patel Hugh Laurie Tilda Swinton

Anticipation.

Dickens? Yawn. Iannucci? Yay!

Enjoyment.

Charming and hilarious, Dickens sans stodge.

In Retrospect.

Needed to be fresh and fun to justify its existence and it is, often thanks to that scorching ensemble cast.

Armando Iannucci trades satire for spirited period comedy in a Charles Dickens adaptation for the ages.

On paper, yet another Charles Dickens screen adaption is an unedifying prospect. The Victorian author created some of Britain’s most memorable characters, but must we keep turning to him for our modern visual entertainment?

Scottish comedy stalwart and avowed Dickens superfan Armando Iannucci has built up such a fine body of work, perhaps he should be afforded some leniency before viewers tackle The Personal History of David Copperfield. If anyone can breathe life into this dusty old tale, surely it’s the man who created The Thick of It and co-birthed Alan Partridge. Gladly, any leniency is rewarded with a fresh take on Dickens’ own favourite – and most personal – story.

Dev Patel heads up a lively ensemble cast as the eponymous aspirant who rises from a tough upbringing to eventual literary fame and fortune. Scenes between young Copperfield, played initially by Jairaj Varsani, and nursemaid Pegotty (Daisy May Cooper) provides early warmth, but happiness is short-lived when his widowed mother marries the violently abusive Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd). Worse luck, Murdstone’s sinister sibling Jane (Gwendoline Christie) is brought in as a housekeeper and Copperfield is sent to school and a ghastly bottle factory, a nod to Dickens’ own upbringing.

Copperfield also has a stint living with the debt-ravaged Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family before Micawber ends up in debtor’s prison, just as Dickens’ own father did. Away from the city there is comfort when he stays at the plush, welcoming country home of his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) where pecuniary matters aren’t so pressing, even if money woes return when darkly obsequious clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) tries to swindle Trotwood.

Writer/director /producer Iannucci, working with regular collaborator and co-writer Simon Blackwell, has jettisoned a significant amount of gloom from the source material (particularly the fate of Copperfield’s first love interest Dora) to make the funniest and most entertaining adaptation of this story to date. It’s such a crowd-pleasing and personable piece, it’s surprising this was made by the same man behind The Death of Stalin, a film as bitterly macabre as it is hilarious.

Yet there’s still darkness here amid the jollity. Dickensian themes of childhood abuse, loss, imprisonment and poverty can’t be escaped no matter how much fun this take is. It’s no leap to connect the on-screen action to the current British age of food banks, austerity and just-getting-by.

What Copperfield does have in common with The Death of Stalin, though, is an exceptional group of actors at the top of their game. Hugh Laurie excels as Mr Dick, Trotwood’s bonkers lodger. Three quasi-mother figures are fascinating in their own way, with Christie’s villainous Jane, Cooper’s big-hearted Pegotty and Swinton’s scene-stealing Trotwood so much fun to watch, you sometimes wish the film was about one of them.

That said, Patel is pleasingly charismatic, while Capaldi is typically wily as Micawber and Whishaw’s Heep is unpleasantly oily, with a haircut as sinister as his manner. All of which ensures a classy, spirited period comedy-drama. We were right to be lenient.

Published 21 Jan 2020

Tags: Armando Iannucci Charles Dickens Dev Patel Tilda Swinton

Anticipation.

Dickens? Yawn. Iannucci? Yay!

Enjoyment.

Charming and hilarious, Dickens sans stodge.

In Retrospect.

Needed to be fresh and fun to justify its existence and it is, often thanks to that scorching ensemble cast.

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