The Personal History of David Copperfield review – Iannucci makes Dickens his own

Armando Iannucci both respects and reinvents the novel in a wonderfully entertaining adaptation full to bursting with fantastic comic performances

5 /
5 stars

5 out of 5 stars.

Dev Patel, right, as David Copperfield, with Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth.

‘Divine pathos’: Dev Patel, right, as David Copperfield, with Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth.
Photograph: Lionsgate

Having found unexpected laughter in the historical horrors of The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci works comedic wonders with the labyrinthine twists and turns of Dickens’s endlessly reinterpretable Victorian narrative. Astutely amplifying the absurdist – and remarkably modernist – elements of his source, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell conjure a surreal cinematic odyssey that is as accessible as it is intelligent and unexpected. At its heart lies a theatrical journey of self-discovery, in which our narrator (superbly played by the endlessly versatile Dev Patel) sets out to determine whether he is “the hero of my own story”, struggling to make a name for himself (literally) as he strides through a vividly realised landscape of memory and invention.

We open with Copperfield on stage, commencing the recitation of his story before striding through a painted backdrop straight into the glowing landscape of East Anglia. It’s a device that will be revisited as scenes fall away like tarpaulin backdrops and memories are projected on to walls, interspersed by handwritten chapter-headings. As with Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock & Bull Story, Iannucci plays inventively with the creative process, displaying a keen eye for visual storytelling as the adult Copperfield witnesses his own birth, comes face to face with his boyish younger self (a terrific performance by Ranveer Jaiswal), and learns to weave characters in and out of his life as he pens a “written memory wherein loss and love live for ever side by side”.

Joining him on his journey are an astonishing array of players, cast with a colour-blind inclusivity that allows Iannucci to broaden the scope and reach of his film beyond that of many previous Dickens adaptations. From Benedict Wong as the wine-chasing Mr Wickfield, to Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes, who holds the true key to Copperfield’s affections, Sarah Crowe (nominated for Bafta’s new casting award) surrounds Patel with a diverse array of performers. As Betsey Trotwood, a magnificent Tilda Swinton is introduced with her nose squished against a window, while Darren Boyd’s ghastly Murdstone is a sinister symphony of hair, eyebrows and teeth. Peter Capaldi plays Mr Micawber as a benevolent Fagin with terrible squeezebox skills (“Angels in his fingertips!” says Bronagh Gallagher’s cheery Mrs Micawber) while Nikki Amuka-Bird lends real steel to the stern figure of Mrs Steerforth.

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Watch a trailer for The Personal History of David Copperfield.

Best of all is Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep, a pudding-bowled apparition who creeps through corridors like a cross between Norman Wisdom and Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror – a volatile mix of subservience and defiance; a beaten dog ready to bite. As for Patel, he displays more than a touch of the divine pathos of Charlie Chaplin, whether wooing the hopelessly inappropriate Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark, who brilliantly doubles as David’s mother Clara) or carousing in a drunken speeded-up revelry with the posh students whose “gentlemanly” company he craves. Throughout, our narrator – who is variously dubbed Daisy, Doady, Trotwood, Davidson, and even “the famous biting boy” – strives to assert his right to the name David Copperfield.

There’s a Terry Gilliam-esque quality to several scenes, such as the capsized boat-house of honey-tinged youthful memories, shattered by a giant hand as fantasy gives way to reality. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson uses wide-angle lenses to capture a child’s-eye sense of wonder, stretching out single moments in dreamy slow-mo, evoking a netherworld that reminded me at times of Nicola Pecorini’s work on Gilliam’s oft-overlooked Tideland.

Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx’s production design and set decoration evoke a strong sense of location both geographical and emotional, from the bucolic warmth of Yarmouth to the cluttered chaos of the bottle factory, the thrilling danger and excitement of London’s streets, and the peculiar haven of Trotwood’s cottage (a no-fly zone for donkeys), where Copperfield finds a kindred spirit in Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick.

Like our narrator, Mr Dick likes to write down his thoughts, attaching his scribbled notes to a kite in a scene of pure inspirational joy. As he did so, I heard echoes of Vaughan Williams in Christopher Willis’s thrillingly resonant score, providing perfect accompaniment to the changing tones and moods of the drama – from frenzied action to more sober melancholy, all imbued with a bustling sense of community. It really is a wonderfully entertaining film, managing to both respect and reinvent the novel from which it takes its lead, creating something new and exciting in the process.