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The Personal History of David Copperfield review – top-drawer Dickens | reviews, news & interviews

The Personal History of David Copperfield review – top-drawer Dickens

The Personal History of David Copperfield review – top-drawer Dickens

Armando Iannucci’s colour-blind Copperfield is a veritable feast of comic acting

Dev Patel is narrator and eponymous hero of 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'

Armando Iannucci’s move away from the contemporary political satires that made his name, first signalled by his bold, uproariously brilliant Death of Stalin, continues apace with a Dickens adaptation that feels quietly radical.

It’s not just the colour-blind casting, which includes Dev Patel playing the young hero; the most striking thing about Iannucci’s Copperfield is how gloriously exuberant it is. 

While not turning away from the social concerns and personal cruelties that permeate Dickens’ work, Iannucci cranks up the comedy, humanity and sense of community of David and his truest friends. This is a celebration of ordinary Britons who keep their dignity intact and humour in good shape, whatever their hardships. 

It opens with an allusion both to Charles Dickens’ penchant for performing his works on stage and the fact that much of his own favourite novel was autobiographical. Here, it’s Copperfield who’s addressing an audience, before turning from them and walking, literally, into his own story. 

After observing his birth, he fast-forwards to boyhood (played by the immensely endearing Jairaj Varsani). The highs are epitomised by the servant Peggotty and her family, who live inside an upturned boat on the Yarmouth beach; the lows by brutish stepfather Edward Murdstone and his austere sister (Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie), archetypal Dickensian miserabilists who despatch David to a bottling factory. And so the topsy-turvy life goes on, from abject poverty to comfortable optimism and back again, as one of Dickens’ most colourful collections of heroes and villains is cast and performed with lip-smacking precision: the melodramatic Micawbers (Peter Capaldi, Bronagh Gallagher) inventively trying to keep the bailiffs at bay, the oleaginous and treacherous Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw), the snobbish Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), barmy Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her even madder lodger Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie, pictured above with Swinton and Patel), who believes that Charles I’s thoughts have lodged in his brain.

Swinton, Laurie and Capaldi are the chief merrymakers, but Patel is at the heart of everything – lending heartfelt expression to David’s suffering and indignation, expert comic timing as foil to this glorious ensemble of eccentrics, goofiness as the fledgling writer impersonates everyone he meets, while jotting their personalities into his notebook. 

Iannucci’s smartly meta screenplay (with In the Loop co-writer Simon Blackwell) has David writing his first novel in the very moment of living it – reaching the sweetly sad moment when the woman he thinks he loves, Dora (Morfydd Clark), advises him to write her out, because she “doesn’t fit”; his notes then reminding him that real love Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) is waiting in the wings. At the same time, the film is visually resplendent, racily edited, buoyantly scored. When Peggotty describes David, she could be speaking for Iannucci’s own intent. “Digs for joy, that boy. Finds it too.”

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