The Personal History of David Copperfield (4 stars)

The Personal History of David Copperfield

LFF 2019: Armando Iannucci doffs his hat to Dickens with typically amusing results

Stepping away from his satirical roots, Armando Iannucci returns with his third film (following In the Loop and The Death of Stalin), paying homage to the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens by adapting what many consider to be his masterwork. Acknowledging his personal debt to the writer's comedic sensibilities, the British filmmaker has already made plain his admiration, in BBC documentary Armando's Tale of Charles Dickens, and here he does what few Dickens adaptations have managed by bringing out the author's lighter side.

If the word 'Dickensian' has come to signify gloomy workhouses and dire poverty on the streets of London, so Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell make it their mission to challenge our expectations. Impressively compressing the 600-page novel into a two-hour narrative, this is a sprightly take on Dickens's account of the life of the ever-optimistic orphan David (Dev Patel), typified by off-kilter transitions between scenes, while Iannucci's askew humour and eye for eccentric details is deftly intermingled with the author's own.

True, David must still contend with Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), that 'umble' sycophant. But there are constant delights to be found in the interpretations of the supporting cast – from David's batty Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton), her sweet but unhinged cousin Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), and the verbose pauper Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), who first gives David shelter after he's forced by his stepfather to work in a bottling factory in London.

And Iannucci's casting of Patel is a masterstroke – not because his colour-blind selection may encourage others to follow suit, but because he's a perfect fit for the role of the innocent, ever-likeable hero. Some Iannucci fans may grumble that the film lacks his usual bite, and perhaps it does, yet, as a breezy and colourful crack at a classic, it smartly straddles the line between appeasing aficionados and enticing newcomers.

Screening on Wed 2, Thu 3 and Sat 5 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 24 Jan.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • UK
  • 1h 59min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Armando Iannucci
  • Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Aneurin Barnard, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Daisy May Cooper
  • UK release: 24 January 2020

David (Patel) is an ever-optimistic orphan who’s given shelter by poor but worthy Mr Micawber (Capaldi). Iannucci brings out the lighter side of Dickens, and the result is a sprightly, breezy and colourful crack at a classic, with a fabulous supporting cast and a perfect turn by Patel as the likeable hero.