The Personal History of David Copperfield has to be one of the most unexpected creative pivots in recent memory. Not since gangster movie aficionado Guy Ritchie decided to make a Disney musical has a filmmaker deviated so drastically from what is expected of them.
For his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ celebrated novel, the Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci trades his scalpel for a butter knife, and his typically devious intentions for a dollop of cheer. It’s an unexpected move, considering that only two years ago, he directed the highly topical political satire The Death of Stalin, which was more in his wheelhouse (Iannucci is the man behind The Thick of It, and its American counterpart, Veep). But then again, the closest anybody expected the director of The Hangover trilogy to get to a Venice Golden Lion was probably if he bought one at an auction.
The Personal History of David Copperfield movie review: Dev Patel stars in director Armando Iannucci’s radical retelling of Charles Dickens’ revered classic.
It’s a funny business, and The Personal History of David Copperfield is a funny film, brimming with wit, humour and a tone as warm as its colour palette. Rusty Victorian gun to my head, I’d wager that there isn’t a single nighttime scene in the film — Iannucci sets his movie exclusively on the brightest of days. Even the dingy insides of sweatshops and dilapidated old houses are lit with streaks of gorgeous sunlight wafting in from the windows.
It’s almost as if, via his visuals, he is wilfully trying to ignore the harsh realities of the world. This attitude is also reflected in his script, which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Simon Blackwell. The movie doesn’t linger on David Copperfield’s hardships (of which there are many), and instead choses to skip along to the next chapter in his life, often under the guidance of David himself. The film opens with him on a stage, introducing his story, before he literally walks into the backdrop and emerges on the other side, in a field, just in time to witness his own birth.
The race-blind casting of Dev Patel should be an indication of Iannucci’s radical take on the revered material. He’s quite magical in the role, buoyant but always believable — equally successful at the physical humour as he is in moments of drama. And Patel’s not alone. The cast is filled with black, brown and Asian faces. Doctor Strange actor Benedict Wong appears as the naive Mr Wickfield and Rosalind Eleazar plays his daughter, Agnes. It’s a neat subversion of that irritating Hollywood habit of casting actors of colour in negative roles, almost as if it has been preconditioned to do so.
This isn’t an empty stylistic exercise, though. Nor is it one of those Disney-driven attempts at pandering to diverse audiences. There’s poignant subtext here. David Copperfield is, after all, a story about discovering one’s true identity.
At various points in the story, he’s referred to as ‘David’, ‘Davy’, ‘Trotwood’, ‘Copperfield’, and even ‘Daisy’. Others have always decided what sort of man he will be (and what he shall be called), they’ve laid down the rules for him; he is a largely passive presence in his own story. But is it his own story, or is he simply a spectator in that of another? David wrestles with these questions as he is introduced to a revolving door of colourful characters.
Even the detestable Uriah Heep is played with comic brilliance by Ben Whishaw, while Peter Capaldi drops by as the delightful Mr Micawber and leaves you wondering if Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would have been a better film with Capaldi playing the Mad Hatter instead of Johnny Depp.
But few can match the sheer power of Tilda Swinton on screen. Having established her chameleon-like qualities in films such as Snowpiercer, Okja and Suspiria, Swinton once again delivers an all-or-nothing performance as David’s kind aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Her scenes with the very endearing Hugh Laurie, as the dim-witted Mr Dick, are some of the best that the film has to offer.
Despite an overeagerness to please, The Personal History of David Copperfield never comes across as glib. It’s an inventive little literary adaptation that justifies its existence.