THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD: Iannucci Pens Fresh Yet Faithful Adaptation of Dickens’ Masterwork

My Verdict | ★★★★☆

From the man who has taken jabs at British political PR and Stalinist totalitarian states, it’s surprising that The Personal History of David Copperfield is neither barbed spoof nor satirical revision. Armando Iannucci has produced not only a fresh adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, but a true ‘love-letter’ to the author and his master-work .

Recounting to a rapt theatre audience the narrative of his life, the eponymous hero (Dev Patel) tries to attain prospects, status and a stable home. Along the way he climbs up and down the ladder of Victorian society- from dodgy, kindly debtors to preening private-school boys set to inherit grand estates and everyone else in between. As they slowly mould his voice and his outlook, Copperfield wonders whether he truly is the hero of his own story.

Eschewing the dirt, fog and grimness of a traditional ‘Dickensian’ adaptation (think Polanski’s version or even Carol Reed’s musical of Oliver Twist), Personal History is bright, vigorous and sincere.

From such a hefty piece of Victorian literature, it’s an adaptation that is swiftly paced and visually imaginative. Iannucci’s direction invigorates the story-telling with revisions and interruptions- as if the film is subject to the interventions of Copperfield’s scribbling pen and active imagination.

Zac Nicholson’s cinematography is never static nor stately but dynamic and theatrical. It’s clear that the Iannucci and his cinematographer have no fidelity for dusty period costume drama conventions- save perhaps Christopher Willis’ whimsically romantic classical score.

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Iannucci still remains faithful to the text. The satirist and co-writer Simon Blackwell’s screenplay often quotes from the author’s gloriously detailed descriptions that give his famous creations and ‘grotesques’ such vitality. It’s a fitting tribute to Dickens’ skill and fondness for language.

Likewise, Iannucci remains rooted in Dickens’ humanist concerns of social class, belonging and identity. The screenplay builds upon the author’s deeper suggestion in David Copperfield that the formation and narration of one’s own life can be dependent on and intertwined with others. Blackwell and Iannucci make this theme so prevalent and resonant that it strips away any distancing to a nostalgic Victoriana; it resounds in the here and now.

The superbly-cast ensemble brings out the contemporary sensibility and upbeat humour with aplomb. Patel leads with dashing charm and earnestness- in turns both serious, sprightly and silly. While Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi give real heart to their uproarious Dickensian eccentrics (especially Laurie’s lovable yet somberly tragic Mr. Dick), Personal History is chock full of memorable performances both big and small.

Standing out for me is Ben Whishaw’s twitchy, slimy but oddly sympathetic Uriah Heep and Rosalind Eleazar’s unflappable, whip-smart Agnes. I’d also be remiss to forget mentioning Daisy May Cooper’s plain-speaking, big-hearted Ms. Peggorty (an early delight in the film) or Benedict Wong’s careening, sozzled Mr. Wickfield.

A diverse cast gives every moment, every part and every room warmth, wit and appeal. For someone who dreaded the original tome, Iannucci and company have succeeded for me in making Dickens’ magnus opus insightful, inclusive and fun.