The Personal History of David Copperfield Review
Though Armando Iannucci might be best known for his cutting and coarse dialogue in shows like Veep, The Thick of It or Alan Partridge, his latest - The Personal History of David Copperfield - is a slightly different beast. It’s not the first time Iannucci has tried his hand at a period piece - Death of Stalin is a fine example of how Iannucci revolutionised the 1950s for the screen - but even here, Russian bureaucrats spoke in the language of Malcolm Tucker et al. It’s hysterically funny, but on hearing that Iannucci was adapting the well-worn story of the young Victorian, one had to wonder whether that story would lend itself to his usual methods of satire and swearing.
Happily, Iannucci has taken a road less well travelled and, in doing so, fuses political discourse and contemporary ideology with humour and sensitivity in all the right places. It doesn’t shoot for an all out comedy (and it isn't Iannucci's usual satirical affair) - the story of Copperfield is too wracked with trauma to attempt this. Yet … David Copperfield manages to bring light and laughter to a story which so often played completely straight (1999 BBC adaptation, I’m looking at you).
Less of a narrative, more of a series of vignettes centred around the main man himself, the film follows the original story pretty faithfully. Young Copperfield’s life plays out chronologically - from his humble beginnings and a harsh stepfather, to the untimely death of his mother, right through to making something of himself - Copperfield’s life is filled with provocative and memorable characters and unfortunate events, much like the novel. Played at first by Jairaj Varsani and later Dev Patel, Iannucci’s Copperfield starts out as an optimistic, naive young boy who becomes a creative, self-assured young man. Varsani and Patel are both wonderful to watch onscreen, completely enchanting as the young man whose imagination is larger than life.
The ensemble cast is impressive; from Ben Whishaw as the slimy Uriah Heep, to Hugh Laurie as the whimsical and ever so confused Mr. Dick, to Benedict Wong as the slightly merry Mr. Wickfield. Though characters flit through Copperfield’s life quickly, each one feels well rounded and developed - This Country’s Daisy May Cooper is particularly wonderful as the warm Peggotty. Perhaps it is only to be expected, but it is Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Micawber who steals the show - hilarious and pitiful in equal measure.
Most importantly, though, … David Copperfield is a story about stories. Not only is the film book-ended between Copperfield telling his adventures to a rapt audience, but the physical staging and scene transitions really sell the story-telling element for the big screen. The carefully constructed production design, editing and blurring between fact and Copperfield’s fiction combine to result in a poignant work of art.
In addition (and this shouldn’t even have to be mentioned) but Iannucci’s film is also a shining example to other directors and casting directors embarking on a period adaptation, proving that history isn’t an all-white affair. The diversity within the film is a testament to the incredible working actors in the UK today, and hopefully others will begin to take note.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a stand-out example of how to modernise a period story for a contemporary audience and how to deal with contemporary issues through a vintage lens. It’s a true triumph of storytelling and will impress existing fans of the story as well as newcomers to Copperfield’s world.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is out in UK cinemas from 24th January