Everyone keeps asking Armando Iannucci about The Thick of It. Having crafted one of the most memorable political satires since the turn of the millennium, he is inevitably being called upon to discuss the status of his work in an era of legitimate political turmoil. His response, brilliantly, has been to say “sod it” to all of that and make a period drama adapted from a beloved Charles Dickens novel. Iannucci has gone soft, but that needn’t be a bad thing. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fresh, spiky take on Dickens, with infectious comedic energy.
After a slightly clunky framing device in which the title character (Dev Patel) is shown narrating his life story in an auditorium, the story snaps back to his youth, in which he’s played by the spirited, inquisitive Jairaj Varsani. The film follows his various rises and falls through the Victorian class system, including as a manual worker in a bottling factory and a student at a slightly prim university, where he crosses paths with uber-posh buddy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who doesn’t “care for whimsy”, and the sinister Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
Iannucci certainly loves an ensemble cast, from the talented TV comedy roster of The Thick of It to the heavyweight Hollywood whos-who of his previous film The Death of Stalin. That mastery of the ensemble is in full effect here, with the filmmaker’s script – co-written with regular collaborator Simon Blackwell – giving the various colourful characters plenty of room to shine. Peter Capaldi is a highlight as the fast-talking charlatan Mr Micawber, a long way from his ferociously foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, while Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie lean into their weirdness as Betsey Trotwood – “fierce like a birthing badger” – and Mr Dick, who believes he’s occasionally possessed by deceased monarch Charles I.
Although on the face of it this seemed an odd union of director and material, Iannucci’s unique, verbose humour slots perfectly into this Victorian world. The first hour or so of David Copperfield fizzes with sparky dialogue and an earnest love for the material, creating a delightful tension between past and present, from which humour and charm springs eternal. Much of this charm emanates from Dev Patel’s central performance – a warm, relatable centre at the heart of a film that frequently catapults off in different directions.
The breadth of Dickens’ expansive storytelling does prove to be something of a struggle for the movie, particularly in its final third, in which the narrative unravels like a ball of string dropped down a spiral staircase. Character arcs are accelerated and threads tied up, with our protagonist’s two romantic interests – a delightfully awkward Morfydd Clark and an enjoyably prickly Rosalind Eleazar – given almost no room to expand beyond the most basic of exchanges with Patel’s Copperfield.
But the film manages to get away scot-free by virtue of its sheer energy and momentum, channeling the kinetic mayhem of an Aardman animation or a Paddington movie. This is a film that makes a point about class shame and inequality that feels very timely, but it’s also not afraid to commit to numerous scenes of slapstick running and other, similarly broad, comic strokes. This is Iannucci relaxing his satirical reins in order to have a good time and, though he sacrifices some of his snark and bite, the propulsive wit of his filmmaking is present and correct as always.
In short, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an Armando Iannucci project through and through, albeit one that suggests he’s slightly tired of the increasing black hole of lost hope that politics has become. This is him at the helm of something light, frothy and clearly close to his heart. The result, of course, is a movie that overflows with warmth and silliness, creating perhaps the first Iannucci film that the whole family can enjoy. Capaldi resists the F-Bombs this time around.
Dir: Armando Iannucci
Scr: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
Cast: Dev Patel, Jairaj Varsani, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, Daisy May Cooper, Paul Whitehouse, Sophie McShera
Prd: Armando Iannucci, Kevin Loader
DOP: Zac Nicholson
Music: Christopher Willis
Country: UK, USA
Run time: 119 mins
The Personal History of David Copperfield is screening at the BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas from 10th January 2020.