Acclaimed satirist Armando Iannucci follows up the pitch-black delights of 2017’s The Death of Stalin with The Personal History of David Copperfield, a relatively conventional Charles Dickens adaptation embellished with occasional flashes of the Scotsman’s abrasive humour.
This is – by this writer’s count at least – the eighth filmic adaptation to date of Dickens’ eighth and own favourite novel, which rather begs the question of why Iannucci was attracted to the project in the first place. The answer could lie in the artistic licence both Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell have presumably been given in updating the text’s intrinsic wit and humour for modern audiences. And yet, even some razor-sharp lines and the gloomy Victorian setting can’t prevent David Copperfield feeling like a safe, even compromised work.
Laying out the scene in a typically theatrical manner, the film begins with an onstage Copperfield (Dev Patel) – now a distinguished writer – taking us through his early childhood in Blunderstone, Suffolk. Born to a mother best-described by his great-aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) as “very young”, master Copperfield grows particularly fond of the family’s housekeeper, Peggoty (This Country star Daisy May Cooper), and begins to document the peculiar colloquialisms of her and her Yarmouth kin. It’s with this newfound love of speech that our narrator-cum-protagonist guides us through his many eventful travails across the workhouses and stately homes of Victorian Britain.
Chief among the film’s many antagonists are the demonic Jane and Edward Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie and Darren Boyd), the latter of which marries David’s widowed mother. Dispatching the boy (played with aplomb by Jairaj Varsani) off to a bottle factory in smoggy London and unable to properly read, David is forced to ingratiate himself with his Fagan-like host Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). It’s here that a now-teenage Copperfield hones the debtor-dodging street smarts that will set him up for later success (via social mobility, of course – this is Britain after all).
A starry British cast includes Rosalind Eleazar and Morfydd Clark (as love interests Agnes and Dora respectively), Hugh Laurie as the Charles I-obsessed Mr. Dick and a deliciously slimy Ben Whishaw as the duplicitous Uriah Heep, beloved characters for any Dickens devotee. And yet, as with many ensembles, some characters feel fully fleshed-out while others quickly dissolve from memory. Patel aside, Clark and Whishaw are arguably the standouts, and neither would look out of place as doltish (or scheming) politicians in Blackwell’s The Thick Of It. The effort has also clearly been made to cast on suitability for the role rather than race, resulting in one of the more diverse period casts of recent memory.
Despite its slightly televisual veneer and sporadic bouts of mawkishness, as far as British costume dramas go, The Personal History of David Copperfield is better than the majority. Those expecting a full-bodied satire of Victorian Britain in the vein of The Death of Stalin, or even a more hard-nosed adaptation of Dickens, will likely feel a little short-changed given the vast array of comic talent involved.