The Personal History of David Copperfield review – delightful Dickens adaptation

Dev Patel shines in Armando Iannucci's unexpectedly charming and sincere take on a beloved literary classic

“Delightful” is not a word you tend to associate with writer-director Armando Iannucci, the man behind sweary political comedies such as The Thick of ItVeep, and The Death of Stalin. Most surprising, then, is just how straight he plays things in his latest film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Though there’s wit in abundance, the trademark irony, vicious barbs, and biting sarcasm are noticeably absent. And whilst Iannucci regular Peter Capaldi (brilliant, as Mr. Macawber) turns up, there’s not a single F-word in its entire two-hour runtime.

For his condensed take on Dickens’ greatest – or at least his weightiest – tale, Iannucci – working from a script he co-wrote with Simon Blackwell – assembles a plethora of British talent and adopts a colour-blind approach to casting in a bid to make the London of the past feel more like the London of today. It works wonders. Dev Patel was Iannucci’s one and only choice for the role of Copperfield; within seconds of his being on screen, you understand why. Patel plays David as a slightly bumbling young man whose natural disposition wins over all who he meets. He’s a keen impressionist and a talented writer who, like Iannucci himself, has a gift for witty phrasing. Patel, ever the natural charmer, sells every floppy-haired moment.

Dickens never met a coincidence he didn’t like, of course, and Iannucci’s cherry-picked retelling sticks with the random run-ins and chance encounters of the book, allowing his characters to move, carousel-like, in and out of a narrative that comes to feel considerably smaller than its tome-like source material. Hugh Laurie is standout as the dithering, Charles I-obsessed Mr. Dick, whilst Tilda Swinton is fiercely funny as David’s donkey-hating Aunt Betsy. Ben Whishaw, meanwhile, is worlds away from his endearing voice work in Paddington (a film whose irresistible tone this film mimics), serving as the film’s sort-of villain in a brilliantly snivelling turn.

Handsomely made and with obvious affection for the material, Iannucci indulges his directorial side with unique visual touches that help to further the idea that what we’re seeing is a version of a story being told to us by David himself (things get very meta when you consider that David is in himself a Dickens surrogate, piling on the narrative layers). Gone, like so many of the novel’s plot points, is the period stuffiness that tends to isolate so many from costume dramas of this sort. This adaptation feels contemporary without the use of any major tricks, like having the characters talk in modern speak – or rapping.

The film is at its most intoxicating during a relentlessly paced first hour, moving effortlessly through a series of amusing incidents and heartfelt moments as David strives to discover whether he is, in fact, the hero of his own life. The film slackens, somewhat, in its second hour, as you sense Iannucci trying to draw the material towards a conclusion that isn’t really there. Given the film’s light and episodic nature, he struggles to find a truly satisfying climax, whilst many will find David’s final romantic switcharoo a little sudden – especially as Iannucci brushes over some details in a move to streamline the narrative.

It must be said: part of me would love to have seen a version of this story made in a more characteristic Iannucci style; watching The Personal History of David Copperfield, some will claim the filmmaker – a self-declared optimist – has gone soft. Considering the state of the world, perhaps he felt there was little room left for satire. Sometimes, it turns out, “delightful” is enough.

Where to watch

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