Dir: Armando Iannucci. Cast: Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw. PG cert, 119 mins
Armando Iannucci has always been a comedic porcupine, pricking every spot in the political landscape. Be it The Death of Stalin, The Thick of It or Veep, his work has convincingly made the argument that cynicism is the only doctrine worth living by. But The Personal History of David Copperfield has finally coaxed out his sentimental side.
A vivacious adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, this is as wide-eyed and open-hearted as they come. Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell have skirted gently around the novel’s darker passages, even doing away completely with one character’s notable and tragic fate.
Perhaps Iannucci has found a small piece of himself in this story, about an author slowly affirming his own identity through his work (the book is said to be based on Dickens’ own experiences). Whatever the case, his film feels like a jaunt straight into a writer’s brain. It’s busy with ideas and characters, as the camera spins around richly coloured Victorian sitting rooms and chases its hero through all manner of situations. It’s self-conscious and theatrical, too, aided by Christopher Willis’ whimsical score. The film opens with David (Dev Patel) at a public reading of his memoirs, before the stage falls away and suddenly we’re watching him race down a countryside lane so he can reach Blunderstone Rookery in time to watch his own birth.
David’s idyllic childhood is interrupted by the sudden marriage of his mother (Morfydd Clark) to Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), an authoritative brute with an equally loathsome sister (Gwendoline Christie). The boy is passed between carers, before enrolling in school and training to become a proctor. It’s a whistlestop tour of Dickens’ 600-plus page book, making it the rare two-hour film that still feels breathless and compact. The Personal History is instead shaped by the various allies and oddballs David meets, each thrillingly brought to screen by the film’s cast: Tilda Swinton is a farcical delight as the flighty Betsey Trotwood; Ben Whishaw plays the manipulative Uriah Heep as a gremlin in a bowl cut; Benedict Wong is the right mix of gruff and sympathetic as the alcoholic Mr Wickfield, and Hugh Laurie adds shades of Bertie Wooster to the childish Mr Dick. The film’s diverse approach to casting will inevitably cause a fuss, but the joy is in how casually it all comes across. It’s a wonderful retort to Hollywood’s obsessive whitewashing of history.
Patel brings the right kind of excitable, puppy dog charm to David. He’s so open to the world that he’s often lost to it – taking on identity after identity, nickname after nickname. He becomes Trotwood, Daisy and Doady all in one lifetime. But he’ll jot down quotes and observations along his way and, when he finally collates them into a book, he discovers himself between the lines.
The Personal History of David Copperfield makes the image of a man sitting down at his writing desk feel like a triumph for the ages.