Film / Reviews

Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

By robin askew, Wednesday Jan 22, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG)

UK/USA 2019 119 mins  Dir: Armando Iannucci  Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Hugh Laurie, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Daisy May Cooper, Paul Whitehouse, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar

The stodginess of certain previous Dickens adaptations suggests that filmmakers have been so overawed by the reputation of the text that they forget it was written for a popular readership. No such reverence afflicts Armando Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell when it comes to the author’s personal favourite of all his works. In the able hands of the creator of The Thick of It and Veep, Dickens’ lengthy, convoluted bildungsroman is exploited for all its metafictional potential in much the same playful style as Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story while, crucially, never disappearing up its own self-referential arse.

It also gallivants along at an impressive, occasionally breathless pace to cram in reams of plot, with plenty of Iannucci’s trademark whip-smart dialogue keeping at bay the author’s tendency towards the maudlin (as so perfectly skewered in that memorable Oscar Wilde quote: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”). The director contends that Dickens is much funnier than he’s given credit for, and part of the fun here is in trying to work out where Dickens ends and Iannucci begins. This is not as obvious as one might think.

The casting is spot-on too, with Dev Patel perfect as the open-hearted Copperfield, who struggles to assert his identity (always a challenge when everybody seems to have a different nickname for him) as he’s swept along through his own self-narrated, incident-packed life story. Much has been made of Iannucci’s colour-blind casting, but this works partly because it chimes with the delightful tone of heightened unreality but also because he refuses to engage in self-conscious woke grandstanding, leaving his actors to get on with the job of delivering thoroughly entertaining performances.

And what great performances they are. Often cast as joyless, austere characters, Tilda Swinton reminds us of her great comic talents as donkey-bothering Aunt Betsey; Hugh Laurie delivers a charmingly bonkers Mr. Dick; Gwendoline Christie is gifted some splendidly acid putdowns as “cold and metallic lady” Jane Murdstone; Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep couldn’t be more perfectly unctuous and scheming; and while we wait in vain for Peter Capaldi to unleash the full cunt avalanche as glass-half-full creditor-dodging Mr. Micawber, he finds comedy gold in the delivery of such lines as: “You’re stealing an honest man’s chicken!”

It’s certainly true that the darker elements of the story are either toned down or excised altogether, which may prove a deal-breaker for stern traditionalists. But in addition to accentuating the comic elements, Iannucci also pushes himself creatively to produce his most visually imaginative and purely cinematic work to date, with plenty of playful and inventive scene transitions. If you’re in tune with his sensibility, you’ll find that this first-rate Dickens adaptation is almost on a par with The Muppet Christmas Carol.

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