Armando Iannucci isn’t known for his forgiving touch when it comes to social commentary. But for this almost aggressively charming Dickens adaptation he slips off the knuckledusters and takes a noticeably gentler – if no less pointed – approach.
The experimental flavour of the novel is deliberately turned up, with distinct chapters, fanciful transitions and a plethora of old-school effects – including Pepper’s ghost. There’s a welcome emphasis on making the Victorian setting feel contemporary and fresh, alongside the kind of sharply-honed lightness that made Whit Stillman‘s 2016 Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, so delicious. Both are genuinely amusing, but Iannucci replaces Stillman’s wryness with an altogether more melancholy note.
Perhaps that’s why Hugh Laurie’s sensitively handled portrayal of mental illness in Mr Dick ultimately steals the show from under the noses of even Swinton’s brisk Aunt Betsey, Capaldi’s irrepressible Mr Micawber and Whishaw’s devastatingly oily Uriah Heep. The cast is both high calibre and massive, so some are inevitably underused – Christie and Wong especially – but Dev Patel holds the centre with warmth and likeability, a vital honest note balancing the sentiment.
For all Patel’s charisma and the script’s comic sparkle, The Personal History of David Copperfield does begin to stretch its runtime at the 100-minute mark; it doesn’t feel like there’s another 20 minutes of story to tell but, Dickens being Dickens, there’s always another character arc to pay off. Still, it almost certainly has a guaranteed Christmas TV slot for years to come – and so it should.
As public discourse skews ever more vicious, it’s refreshing to watch the razor-sharp mind behind The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin tackle still depressingly timely issues of poverty and inequality with a distinctly compassionate tone. Just as in David’s life, that little kindness goes a long way.
CAST: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard, Paul Whitehouse, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, Jairaj Varsani
DIRECTOR: Armando Iannucci
WRITERS: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell (screenplay), Charles Dickens (novel)
SYNOPSIS: David Copperfield narrates the tale of his dramatic changes in fortune and the stories of the characters he meets along the way.