Film Review: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Armando Iannucci believes that modern (British) comedy owes a considerable debt to Charles Dickens, and he should know. Iannucci produces some of the wickedest, and most colorful, laughter to be found on (British) television: “I’m Alan Partridge,” “The Thick of It” and, for export, “Veep.” Dickens, on the other hand, has produced a mostly dreary catalog of play-it-straight costume dramas, owing less to the source material than a modernist bias that looks back to the author’s Victorian settings and sees them as crude, dark and relatively unenlightened.

Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” comes across as a bright and jaunty corrective to the dour and stuffy Dickens adaptations that have come before. As Iannucci put it as host of the hour-long “Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens” for BBC back in 2012, “I want to show that the work of Charles Dickens isn’t just quality entertainment for a long-dead audience,” explaining, “The characters he creates are as real and as psychologically driven as the inhabitants of any urban landscape today.” This movie is an outgrowth of that belief, an attempt to rescue Dickens from the musty category of “literature” — not a disrespectful place to be, but stodgier than cucumber sandwiches at a croquet match — and reintroduce him as a rapid-fire ahead-of-his-time wit. (One day, someone will do the same for Iannucci.)

Rather than updating Dickens’ semiautobiographical bildungsroman — which the author described as “a favourite child” among all his novels — to the present, as others have tried over the years, Iannucci brings a contemporary sensibility to the Victorian setting. In that sense, the movie resembles Tony Richardson’s madcap adaptation of “Tom Jones,” with its in-on-the-joke narrator (Copperfield narrates his own story, much as he does in the novel) and assorted post-modern touches (both films feature a sped-up silent-movie sequence), although it lacks the rebellious generational sensibility that made that film such a fluky success.

Iannucci’s most radical choice comes in casting, beginning with the certainty that the title role could be played by none other than Dev Patel, the London-born star of “Slumdog Millionaire” — an unconventional choice, but one that goes a long way to transpose the diversity found virtually everywhere in England today onto an earlier narrative. Dickens’ work focuses so much on social opportunity and class that audiences could opt to read the choice as some kind of commentary on Copperfield’s station, although that doesn’t appear to be Iannucci’s intent. Rather, Patel brings just the right kind of bright-eyed innocence to the role — an example of color-blind casting that’s far more effective than last year’s “Mary Queen of Scots” (where actors of diverse heritage were featured, but only in supporting roles), and which further makes room for actresses Rosalind Eleazar and Nikki Amuka-Birda.

The next big decision comes in how to condense Dickens’ roughly-600-page novel into something fleet and fast-paced enough to prove Iannucci’s point about how funny he considers the writer to be. Once you get past the instant hilarity of his character names, much of Dickens’ humor comes through in the sheer long-windedness of his descriptions, for which Iannucci must find tight, cinematic equivalents.

While there is no small about of suffering in the book — “I had been more miserable than I thought anybody could believe,” Copperfield says at one point — virtually anything tragic comes closely entwined with laughter, which proves a welcome antidote to sentimentality. Whereas so many Dickens miniseries are marred by a tendency toward the maudlin (the same quality that marred Patel’s last parentless outing, “Lion”), Iannucci breezes through the more upsetting sequences — as when David’s too-strict step-father Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) attempts to beat the boy, and instead winds up chasing him around the bedroom, upsetting a chamber pot in the process, or his subsequent mistreatment at the factory, where a parrot-like foreman dutifully repeats the tail end of everything out of his boss’s mouth.

Like some kind of long-lost Monty Python sketch, Iannucci’s revisionist “David Copperfield” alternates between intellect and absurdity, blending high- and low-brow elements. Furthering that comparison is “Death of Stalin” DP Zac Nicholson’s vaguely carnivalesque, bulgy wide-angle way of immersing himself in the action and energetically covering scenes from within, whipping around to follow the comedy à la Terry Gilliam.

While the material’s literary origins confer a certain respectability to the experience, so does Iannucci and longtime co-writer Simon Blackwell’s penchant for twisting simple phrases into complex, fun-to-untangle Sunday-crossword-puzzle clues. For example, when asked if he’s homeless, Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) replies, “We do primarily exist al fresco,” cheerily adding, “Every meal is a picnic!” At the same time, slapstick and physical humor are never far from hand, as evidenced by Tilda Swinton’s Aunt Betsey, who violently enforces a no-donkeys-allowed policy over her front garden — a detail lifted straight from the novel that makes the book’s comedic undercurrents impossible to ignore: “The one great outrage of her life, demanding to be constantly avenged, was the passage of a donkey over that immaculate spot.”

Swinton is often eccentric in her roles, but seldom this consistently amusing. Here, daffily complemented by Hugh Laurie’s half-mad Mr. Dick, she serves as the film’s most reliable source of off-guard titters, from the opening scene — present for David’s birth, she wishes desperately that her nephew will be born a girl — to the indignant way she dismisses the patronizing, faux-’umble Uriah Heep (an unctuous Ben Whishaw): “I’m not ‘someone in my circumstances.’”

The overall tone here is brighter and considerably less caustic that Iannucci’s previous features, though there’s no mistaking his authorial voice. He and Blackwell appear to have set a challenge, daring audiences to detect which details belong to Dickens, and which they’ve invented from whole cloth. To further disguise the impostor dialogue, they return often to the idea that Copperfield is gathering string for the publication of his “Personal History,” scrawling stray thoughts and catchy vernacular on scraps of paper — which suggest the origins of quotations that, more often than not, never appear in the book.

One recurring joke (if you want to call it that) that carries over directly from “David Copperfield” involves the way that nearly every character has a different nickname for the lad: Aunt Betsey calls him “Trotwood Copperfield,” upper-crust school chum Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) dubs him “Daisy,” future wife Dora (Morfydd Clark) favors “Doady,” and so on. For much of the film, David seems lost amid all these conflicting identities, searching for his sense of self. Eventually, he declares, “I am David Copperfield,” asserting for the first time what his in-progress book will go to show. There’s something enormously satisfying to hear those words coming from Patel’s mouth. He is David Copperfield. And sure enough, the character’s a lot funnier than we ever realized.

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Film Review: 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 5, 2019. (Also in BFI London Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 120 MIN.

Production:(U.K.) A Fox Searchlight Pictures release, presented with FilmNation Entertainment, Film4, in association with Wishmore Entertainment. (Int’l sales: FilmNation Entertainment, London.) Producers: Kevin Loader, Armando Iannucci. Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Simon Blackwell, Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos.

Crew:Director: Armando Iannucci. Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell. Camera (color): Zac Nicholson. Editors: Mick Audsley, Peter Lambert. Music: Christopher Willis.

With:Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse, Aneurin Barnard, Daisy May Cooper, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welsh, Rosalind Eleazar.

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