Armando Iannucci’s comedic style to this point has been an icy sort of poison so delicious you can’t help but keep sipping at it even as the pain in your gut keeps growing. Foul-mouthed political satires like The Thick of It, Veep, and the feature film spin-off of Thick of It, In the Loop, used a harsh faux-documentary aesthetic that immersed you fully into the fluorescent drudgery of the fools, monsters, and monstrous fools who run our world. Iannucci’s last film, The Death of Stalin, opened his visual palette up to allow for opulence and a sweeping scope, but beneath the splendor was the same bitter, curdled heart. Nowhere in any of this work would words like “whimsical” or “life-affirming” or “giddy with love” need apply.
So what then to make of The Personal History of David Copperfield, a whimsical and life-affirming new film from Armando Iannucci that is positively giddy with love for its characters, its world, for the language with which its characters face and then describe their world, and really, for the whole of the human race and all the wonderful messes we make with our time on this earth.
For those of you, like me, whose only knowledge of David Copperfield to this point was that it was a Charles Dickens book that was most decidedly not about certain magicians, it is the coming-of-age (or bildungsroman, as the nerds would have it) of a young man named, of course, David Copperfield from his early happy days through innumerable disasters and odd adventures that lead him to success to poverty to success again, before arriving safely at happy adulthood and into the arms of his true love.
David Copperfield has been credited by many as being steeped in autobiography on the part of Charles Dickens (note the initials) albeit mixed heartily with Dickens’ trademark coincidence-laden labyrinth plotting, and his combination of staunch realism with both heightened whimsy and the grotesque.
The Personal History opens with David Copperfield (Dev Patel) taking the stage to regale the audience with the various calamitous events of his life. Because what we are seeing is a story that Copperfield has written and edited himself, Iannucci can play fast and loose with time and reality, sliding from the staunch to the madcap at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, the London portrayed in this film is so steeped in charming unreality that you half-expect to see Paddington wandering down the street, marmalade sandwich in hand.
David (played as a child by Jairaj Varsani) enjoys an idyllic early life with his naïve mother (Morfydd Clark) and loving nanny Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper). But soon his mother has married the looming, vulture-like Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and he in turn brings home his ghostly/ghastly sister (Gwendoline Christie) and they turn David’s bright and happy house into a living tomb before promptly shipping David off to work in a…well…Dickensian workhouse with no one to care for him except for persistently destitute but ever-optimistic Mr. Mickawber (Peter Capaldi, about a million miles removed from his In the Loop days, where he wielded profanity like Al Capone hefting a baseball bat).
David (now played by Patel) eventually hits the road in search of a better life. His journeys bring him into the home of his kind-hearted but belligerent aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her half-mad lodger Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie, having a grand old time as an instantly lovable buffoon). David’s education brings even more people into his orbit, including the permanently soused lawyer Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the romantic but melancholy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) and his haughty mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the obsequious, odious Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, about a million miles removed Paddington), and the daffy Dora Spendlow (Clark again), who immediately captures David’s heart.
As a character, David could easily feel like a placeholder instead of a person, little more than a vessel that carries us into and out of encounters with other, more vivid and interesting, personalities. Rather than combat that, Iannucci has turned into the skid. Like Greta Gerwig’s phenomenal Little Women last year, Iannucci has used this classic text as a means to illustrate the journey of a writer. David spends much of the film trying on different personalities and identities, collecting a rather remarkable variety of nicknames along the way. He scurries away from encounters so that he can quickly write down his impressions and observations, as caught up in documenting his life as he is in living it. That is, until finally the ‘true’ David Copperfield emerges, the one who knows and accepts that his purpose is to collect and shape lives into stories. Because this is a story being told by David, the doubling up of roles, the dips and slips into the fanciful, and the cheerful preponderance of lucky breaks and coincidences all make sense together. This isn’t life as it is experienced, this is life as a writer condenses, edits, and editorializes it.
The key to this approach working is casting the right person to inhabit a writer’s skin and showcase their mind, and luckily Copperfield is being played by Patel at a moment when he is coming fully into his powers as a leading man and movie star. The gawky kid from Slumdog Millionaire is long gone, replaced by a performer of consummate skill and confidence. Whether David is the center of comedic energy in a scene or standing off to the side and reacting while the various ensemble players get their turn at center stage, Patel is always game for whatever the scene needs. And when the time comes for David to finally step forward into the spotlight and claim this story as his own, Patel does so and leaves you with no doubt that for all the scene-stealers working at the top of their game, this movie belongs only to him.
The scene-stealers sure do give it their all though. Swinton and Laurie make a delightfully daffy pair without sacrificing the innate decency that keeps them in David’s corner throughout his life, while Wong scores some of the movie’s biggest laughs with his limited screen time. Barnard finds the genuine pain that keeps his poor little rich boy compelling even through some monstrous choices. Clark is a hoot and a half as the two immature but loving women that haunt David, while Eleazar makes a luminous film debut as the girl waiting for David to wise up to the fact that she is the one he’s truly been looking for. And as the repulsive Uriah Heep, Whishaw manages the delicate job of playing the character’s grotesque nature to the hilt while also locating the glimmer of pained humanity that drives Heep’s worst deeds.
And it would be remiss of me not to give a special shout out to Peter Capaldi, who in his last collaboration with Iannucci threatened to kill a man with a lubricated horse cock. Mr. Mickawber calls on an entirely different set of acting skills from Capaldi, and he is nothing less than superb. It’s easy to cast Capaldi for menace and mania, and he is terrific at that. But with just the slightest shift in his posture and expression he can communicate bottomless reserves of sorrow or kindness. Paired with an indomitable rascal spirit, Capladi makes his Mickawber a lovable loser for the ages.
One thing you’ll note about that cast list, indeed the most striking thing to note when looking at the posters and advertisements for Personal History is that Iannucci has opted for a fully colorblind approach to building his cast. While it is striking the first time you see a rooms and streets filled with actors of color in full Victorian garb. Whether they are playing common folk or the idle rich, actors of color populate every corner of the film. No effort is made to line up the ethnic make-up of parents and their children, meaning that, truly, anyone could play any role.
But after those first striking moments, it never occurs to you as something odd. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a dream version of London life, so why should it be tethered to the demographics of yesterday? Instead, Iannucci has built a film set in the past that nonetheless feels alive and current in a way that many a chamber piece does not. If anything, you can feel in this cast palpable glee at getting the chance to play this material that in years past would only have found room for them as servants, if that. It’s a tremendously freeing choice, and one can only hope that other purveyors of period films will take that freedom and run with it.
This year also saw the release of a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Emma, and while I liked that film a good deal, it’s occasional flourishes of stylization were inconsistent and largely unjustified by the rest of the film. Instead they felt more like half measures in an effort to goose an old story into modern relevancy.
Say whatever else you want about The Personal History of David Copperfield, but there are no half measures here. Iannucci commits hard to this approach, and it is safe to say that there is no other Dickens adaptation quite like it.
Hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure, David Copperfield is pure delight in cinema form. I had no idea Iannucci was either capable of or interested creating a movie like this, but he and his team have carried it off in superb fashion. The movie is available for rental and purchase on VOD, and I highly recommend you make the time for it.