The Personal History of David Copperfield review: An absolute delight
Ivan Radford | On 15, Jun 2020
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Aneurin Barnard
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Armando Iannucci might seem like an odd fit for an adaptation of Charles Dickens, but the Thick of It and Veep director feels fantastically at home in this rip-roaring romp through period London.
First published in book form in 1850, the story follows the eponymous young fellow who is raised by his widowed mother and gentle housekeeper, Peggotty, before she finds a second husband in Mr. Murdstone, a factory owner who packs him off to boarding school – and then to work in his bottling warehouse. What follows is a coming-of-age odyssey that takes us from debtors’ prison to the well-off estate of his great-aunt, by way of a beached barge and an incredibly awkward tea party.
Dickens is known for his portrayal of the horrendous working conditions of Victorian London, but for all his sweeping portraiture of society and its inequalities, the magic of his writing lies in his colourful, satirical yet affectionate descriptions of the eccentrics and outsiders that populate it. That sense of humour proves a neat match for Iannucci, whose witty touches shine through in every scene – The Muppets aside, Iannucci and Simon Blackwell’s script is the funniest Dickens film adaptation in recent memory, if not ever.
The cast sink their teeth into the fast-paced result, dispatching one-liners, two-liners and three-liners with barely a care in the world. Ben Whishaw as the malcontent Uriah Heep, who claws his way up the social ladder at David’s second boarding school (a much nicer affair than his first), is a joy, with his simpering, sycophantic sighs giving way to a bitter resentment – the polar opposite of Hugh Laurie as the bewildered Mr Dick, a friend of his great-aunt (the entertainingly preposterous Tilda Swinton). Before they’re introduced, the show is almost entirely stolen by a wonderfully deadpan Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber, a pauper who fancies himself an academic. The rest of the impeccable supporting cast include Aneurin Barnard as snooty but sympathetic classmate Steerforth, Gwendoline Christie as Mr Murdstone’s cruel sister, and The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse and This Country’s Daisy May Cooper as the Peggottys.
But the man in the spotlight is undoubtedly Dev Patel, who brings real movie star charisma to the lead role of Copperfield. Patel juggles an engaging sincerity with razor-sharp comic timing. The only person more exuberant is Iannucci himself, who throws genre conventions out the window to piece together his inventive take on familiar material with fresh imagination and unbridled creativity. Transitions between scenes and locations feel organic and improvised, while Copperfield’s changing perspective of the world as he grows up is seamlessly reflected in the scale and tone of each set piece. This is a beautifully modern period piece, one that captures the timeless thrill of growing up and finding one’s narrative – a life story that, fittingly, Copperfield writes with his very own pen. An utter delight.