The Personal History of David Copperfield
by Hope Madden
Will he turn out to be the hero in his own life?
The Personal History of David Copperfield reunites the writing/directing team of Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, whose Death of Stalin, In the Loop and the series Veep represent high water marks in political satire.
How are they with whimsy?
Not too bad. While the material is a far different style of cynical minefield for the filmmakers, Dickens offers a couple of opportunities Iannucci and Blackwell can appreciate: a big cast and wordplay.
Dev Patel is a perfectly amiable, easy to root for David Trottwood Daisy Dodi Murdstone Davidson Copperfield. (Ranveer Jaiswal is the even easier to root for, ludicrously adorable youngster version.) As we see their tale spun and re-spun, it is, of course, the characters that come and go that make the biggest impression.
Who? Tilda Swinton (with the year’s best onscreen entrance), Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong and Peter Capaldi, among many others. The multiracial cast emphasizes the fanciful fiction, the desire of a writer to create a story better than their own reality. Here, each actor takes character to caricature, but the brashness suits Iannucci’s busy, bursting, briskly paced narrative.
Iannucci hopscotches about the story and timeline in an episodic manner that fits the source material. What results is a charmingly animated rumination on those characters in life who shape our stories, experiences and maybe our character.
We can all get behind an underdog story, although like most of Dickens’s work, David Copperfield isn’t one. It’s the would-be tragedy of a person of good breeding who falls into a life that’s beneath him only to have his proper station returned to him via a happy ending.
Not to poo-poo Dickens, but it’s in the cheery resolution that the material seems a misfit for the raging if delightful cynicism of the filmmakers. When Uriah Heap accuses, “You and yours have always hated me and mine,” the boisterous nature of Iannucci’s film feels ill at ease because of the line’s pointed honesty. Let’s just right these cosmic wrongs and give the money back to the people who had it in the first place, shall we?
Still, this David Copperfield has its own lunatic charm to burn. Gone are the laugh out loud moments as well as the bitter aftertaste of Iannucci’s best work, but in their place is a lovely time.