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‘Personal History of David Copperfield’ Review: Dickens, Served with a Side of Absurdity

Writer-director Armando Iannucci delivers an irreverent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic that nails the author’s humor, spirit and voice to a tee

Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in 'The Personal History of David Copperfield.'

Dean Rogers/©20th Century Studios

The trick to crafting a don’t-miss film out of Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield is to get someone who isn’t afraid to be irreverent in the director’s chair. And, presto, here’s Armando Iannucci, the political satirist behind the profanity-filled delights of Veep, In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, cutting this literary doorstop into pieces. It proves Iannucci’s theory that the Victorian-era author had a comic side, with a twist of Monty Python-level absurdity.

Dickens’ fanatics know that Copperfield was the author’s favorite child among his 15 books, a semi-autobiographical tale echoed in the character’s  famous opening lines: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Cramming over 600 pages of Dickens prose into a two-hour movie is no easy task. And though Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell nod toward the book’s depictions of child abuse, social status, rampant greed and personal tragedy, there’s no question that their film favors the funny stuff. Don’t be fooled by the period duds and tasteful production design, all lushly shot by by cinematographer Zac Nicholson. This adaptation gives the action a present-tense charge, and purists may miss the leisurely pace of George Cukor’s classic 1935 film version. But Iannucci compensates with a propulsive forward momentum.

Right from the first scene, in which the adult David (Dev Patel, killing it) stands on a stage in a packed theater to tell his life story (much like Dickens himself did), the film hurtles into areas where stodgy historical dramas fear to tread. Our hero literally watches himself being born, and then, in short order, David walks through the major events of his early life: the death of his beloved mother; the cruelty of his stepfather Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and Murdstone’s sister, Jane (Gwendoline Christie, a.k.a. Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones); the banishment of his kindly nurse Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper); his indentured servitude in a bottle factory; and his friendship with Mr. Micawber (a superb Peter Capaldi), immortalized by W.C. Fields in the 1935 film. The perpetually debt-ridden husband and father remains convinced, against all evidence,  that “something will turn up.”  Too traumatized to share Micawber’s optimism, but recording everything for use in his future days as a writer, young David (Jairaj Varsani) runs away to save himself.

His destination is the home of his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Shooing off intruders ranging from passing donkeys to the evil Murdstones, Betsey is bossiness personified. She neglected David at birth because he wasn’t the namesake niece she expected. But the sight of this poor, bedraggled orphan of the storm brings out Betsey’s maternal side. As does Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), Betsy’s sweetly delusional cousin who thinks the voice ringing in noggin belongs to the beheaded King, Charles I. Iannucci is not afraid to tackle Mr. Dick’s condition for what it is, i.e. mental illness. There’s never a doubt that without Betsey’s help, Mr. Dick would be sent to a madhouse or worse, adding pathos to the joyous scene when David adds Charles I’s words to Mr. Dick’s kite, sending them out of his bedeviled head and into thin air.

Copperfield wobbles when dealing with David’s love life, first with the childish Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark), and then with the smart and loyal Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the daughter of Aunt Betsey’s business manager Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong). Kudos to Ben Whishaw as that preening suck-up Uriah Heep, the ambitious Wickfield clerk whose cloying humility masks a plot to ruin his boss and marry into the family. It’s the ultimate revenge on the man he calls, with barely concealed venom, Master Copperfield.

The performances, in large roles and small, could not be better. Still, it’s Patel who provides the film with its passionate heart. An actor born in London to Indian Hindu immigrants, you could say he’s hardly the traditional choice to play the title role of Dickens’ British orphan who overcomes hardships to rise above his station. But it’s most certainly an inspired choice. A world-class charmer, Patel meets the role’s every challenge with a true performer’s intuitive instinct for the core of a scene. And to see Eleazar, a black stage actress making a stellar film debut, play Agnes with no mention of race feels quietly revolutionary. Iannucci, born in Scotland to Italian parents, tellingly uses color-blind and ethnically-diverse casting to create a multicultural Dickensian world — and a rarity in period pieces — that looks very much like our own.

The writer-director also conceives David as a born writer who takes on the personality traits of everyone he meets in the search for his own identity. And it’s in watching David start to become the “hero of his own life” that gives this irresistible romp its indelible spirit. This teeming film sometimes bursts at the seams, but it’s abound with an exuberant energy that honors Dickens without embalming him in the literary past. It’s irresistible.

From Rolling Stone US