Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield opens with the titular character (played by the ever-wonderful Dev Patel) reading his autobiography to a packed auditorium. It allows his early, narratorial voice-over to start in a more organic fashion but, more importantly, it tells us what all the events in the film are building up to: Copperfield emerging into the public eye as an artist. This simple but crucial detail informs everything in the film, giving young David’s wide-eyed curiosity an added poignancy and his later trials a man-making gravitas.
David Copperfield features many of the usual Charles Dickens tropes. David’s early years are idyllic, spending his childhood summers with his housekeeper’s welcoming family in Yarmouth where they live in an upturned boat situated on the beach. David returns one summer however to discover his mother remarried to a cruel stepfather and, like many Dickensian children, he ends up working at a bottling factory with some other children. As expected, the pay is paltry and the conditions abhorrent but David’s home life with the kind, poverty-stricken Micawber family provides a degree of comfort.
Cut to Dev Patel as the young man and enter Dickens’ brilliant cast of supporting characters. This (unsurprisingly given Iannucci’s background) is where the film really shines as Iannucci gets just how funny Dickens really is. Dickens’ characters are all animated by their quirkiness and, despite his tendency to write character types rather than actual people, their idiosyncrasies, in this instance, make them feel more realized. The film’s humour and heart reside with them. Tilda Swinton relishes playing David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her bull-headed eccentricities, but Hugh Laurie is probably the film’s funniest element. He is absolutely delightful as the away-with-the-fairies daydreaming, King Charles I obsessed Mr Dick. Laurie’s secret is that he knows his character is never trying to be funny – it’s just who he is.
Nearly any member of this terrific cast could be singled out for praise but perhaps Iannucci’s decision to recruit such a diverse cast in the first place deserves the most praise. It’s impossible not to notice it as it’s too rare in cinema, never mind in a period film. When the results are this good though who can possibly argue with this becoming the new norm?
If there is a problem with the film it’s that it occasionally suffers from biography syndrome, where we see everything that’s going on but only feel some of it. Iannucci’s loving adaptation is, at times, too eager to pack as much of Dickens’ long book into his, by comparison, slim two hour run time. This means that the narrative thrusts forward at such breakneck speed throughout the film that some moments don’t land the emotional or comedic punch that you feel they perhaps could. The weaker scenes have a certain weightlessness to them that are all the more obvious because of the film’s stronger ones.
However, with a film this delightful it seems unfair to dwell too much upon these aspects. While the cast frequently make you smile, Iannucci himself interjects his source material with even more comedic vibrance. In one brilliant scene, David and his companions get drunk and, as they do, the film itself gets intoxicated as Iannucci’s camera swirls and stumbles about, breaking into the type of-staccato-movement characteristic of old silent comedies.
It may not be Iannucci’s finest work but that’s meant more as praise of Iannucci than it is criticism of this particular film. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a great Dickens’ adaptation which captures the spirit of the novel and it’s a cut above your average film. You’re sure to leave the cinema smiling after this one.