The Personal History of David Copperfield is a curious directional move for Armando Iannucci. Famous for The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin, they were all examples of his sharp witticism and satirical commentary. In many respects, the world has slowly morphed into a neverending episode of The Thick of It. So to give his latest film credit, he delivers something that is a departure from his previous venture for something that is genuinely from the heart.
Iannucci’s passion for Dickens is evident on screen, exploring the experimental and imaginative world of Charles Dickens. His take is more cinematic, with sweeping transitions and edits that journey into the surreal with an omnipresent David Copperfield (the brilliant Dev Patel) visiting his childhood in a real-life take of ‘writing a letter to your younger self’, to a script that’s heavily light-hearted, and whimsical. It’s a film that has persuaded itself to have the best of both worlds – delivered with fresh modernity but has all the classical trademarks of a period drama.
It’s a clash of styles that takes some time to find its natural rhythm as we’re taken on this adventurous journey through Copperfield’s life from the childhood innocence and his love of words to the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Sadly, there’s no mistaking its unevenness, especially in its opening and rushed final third. There’s an argument that can be inferred that David Copperfield should have been a TV show instead of a movie because of how it tries to accommodate everything its two-hour running time. While it does its best, the truncated pattern does reduce its brilliant cast and the notable characters they play to cameo-like appearances with limited depth.
But there is a lot to appreciate once it does pick up its momentum. In a colour-blind casting move, it’s diversely represented with the ‘who’s who’ of British talent featuring Rosalind Eleazar, Anthony Welsh and Nikki Amuka-Bird. There are simply not enough words to describe Tilda Swinton, but any time she gets to play someone who’s comically eccentric is an excellent Tilda Swinton performance. Ben Whishaw is equally amazing as Uriah Heep who creepily hangs around like an opportunistic vulture, struggling to finish a sentence or fit in within the class. Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield who’s always searching for a drink is a great addition. But Hugh Laurie occasionally threatens to steal the show as Mr. Dick with a delivery that reminded me of Blackadder. But once it transitions into Dev Patel’s hands, the film finds its assuredness.
Dev Patel has come a long way since his breakout role in Skins, but his performance in David Copperfield proves how much he should be in more films as a leading man. Amongst the fluctuating chaos and the quirkiness of his friends, there’s charisma that delicately places itself between the drama and the satirical humour that Iannucci and his scriptwriter Simon Blackwell exploits. And because he’s able to adapt to those shifts in tone, whenever the film feels like it’s going off track, he’s always there to bring it back into focus.
Throughout, you’re constantly reminded of its recognisable theme in which Copperfield struggles with – identity. Split into significant chapters, he’s called every name under the sun from Daisy to Trotwood – any name that makes it easier to have Copperfield around their company for a character trying to find his place in the developing metropolis of the world.
While we’re used to the fast-paced, hard-edge, expletive-fuelled bite that Iannucci’s dialogue often encompasses, the humour is peppered amongst its ‘rags to riches’ surroundings of hardships and pain. I guess there will be a natural disappointment considering Iannucci’s reputation. But Iannucci understands the sentimentality that comes with Dickens’ work and happily displays that’s charm which is echoed throughout. His trademark humour occasionally takes a back seat, but sticking to his guns, this is a personal exploration.
But what does come out strongly is its emphasis on hardships and poverty – something that has been the backbone of Dickens’ work. It’s not explored with the greatest of depth – still safely wrapped up in the hope and progression of David’s pursuit of a life without pushing itself to explore deeper. But it’s a feeling that’s felt all around – Peter Capaldi’s Mr Micawber and his family, are canny enough to be one step ahead of their bailiffs during their desperate times as they run around the streets of London. It’s felt in the way untrustworthy landlords squeeze occupants into small living accommodations. Amongst the cruelty of its reality, it’s no surprise that David Copperfield reminds us of the humanity in people and how it doesn’t take much for fortunes to change before ending up on the streets – something that resonates now more than ever.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fun and solid piece of entertaining work by Armando Iannucci. It doesn’t quite live up to the expectations and standards we’ve come to expect, but commend him for trying something different.
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details. Released 10th Jan 2020 in UK cinemas.