Written by Tom Button
The Personal History of David Copperfield is directed by Armando Iannucci and stars Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, and Hugh Laurie. The film is based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens.
The story tells of the rise of the titular David Copperfield (Patel) from a poverty-stricken childhood to a position of power and wealth. Throughout his travels across Victorian England, he meets many eccentric characters. Among these are his Fagin-like mentor Micawber (Capaldi), posh aunt Trotwood (Swinton), and the often confused Mr Dick (Laurie).
There are also many great side characters such as Benedict Wong’s drunk businessman Wakefield and David’s ‘ally’ Mr Heep, played brilliantly by Ben Whishaw. We follow David and friends as he finds love and experiences loss in an altogether delightful romp.
The effectiveness of this story rests on the strength of Patel as Copperfield, and I am pleased to say that he is such a talent here. From his performances in Skins and Slumdog Millionaire, we saw his talent shine. In this film, he demonstrates his penchant for comedy, crafting a warm presence that lights up the screen. The same goes for David’s childhood self, played with a boundless curiosity by Jairaj Varsani.
Patel glides from scene-to-scene effortlessly. The interactions with his friends and family have an energetic, almost childlike, quality to them. Patel oozes confidence in a role which might as well have been tailor-made just for him. There are several emotional moments where David is beset on all sides and his anger is palpable. A wonderful performance filled with heart and wit from Patel, which he delivered with gusto and a warm personality.
Capaldi as Micawber is an old grifter whose joker exterior shields a venerable soul; he tries his best to help the young David cope with comical one-liners. However, as he grows older, Micawber takes a sombre turn, but still keeps his bright wit – showing Capaldi’s talent. He helps the audience feel for his predicaments as he spirals deeper and deeper into poverty.
Swinton as Trotwood is just wonderful casting. Here is a woman whose warm and paternal love for David can give way to terrible waves of hilarious anger – the donkey scene is just excellent.
Swinton puts on a pitch-perfect accent to go along with her character, which makes everything that comes out of her mouth funnier. She beams with a great radiance which makes her scenes better; such as her exchanges with David, and especially Mr Dick, are often achingly humorous as they give her a deeper personality – which I was not expecting.
Even when confronted by villains, her stiff posture and harsh barbs never fail her. Trotwood, like others, has an unbreakable spirit which Swinton captures best in her performance. No matter how bleak things get, she is always ready with a sarcastic comment or comforting word.
Laurie as Mr Dick is a slow, confused old man with memories of a deceased king in his head. When he tells David of this, he, like the audience, is baffled. Laurie is one of the funniest actors in the film, rattling off short monologues and anecdotes, which had me in tears of laughter. Stupid humour works for him here, but it is how Laurie projects and delivers his lines that make it special.
The pairing of Swinton and Laurie is the best I have seen in a comedy for a long while; their bickering conversations are always entertaining and flow back and forth seamlessly. It is wonderful.
None of this would have worked even half as well without a great script, and Simon Blackwell’s lines are exquisite. Every joke, whether it be incidental, intricate, or a long-running gag, all land with expert timing. He also balances the comedy with serious dialogue, which is as equally important to the story. There are no throwaway lines, and in a modern comedy, that is hard to come by and indicative of a talented writer.
Iannucci’s direction is similarly whimsical, with quirks and oddities that make him such an interesting figure in British comedy. With a mixture of expert sets, costume designs, and clever use of editing, the film’s vivid characters are surrounded by industrial smokestacks in then by beautiful countryside scenery.
It all creates a playful atmosphere and is noticeably different visually than many other Dickens adaptions. There is a certain charm to Victorian London which I loved. Iannucci is back to his best after his cult comedy, The Death of Stalin (2017), left me feeling cold and unsatisfied. However, Copperfield makes up for that film, tenfold. The creator of The Thick of It strikes again with a clear vision for comedy and a unique mastery of the British sense of humour.
The Personal History of David Copperfield marks a great return to form for Iannucci, who was in the middle of producing a television series. The cast does a great job of bringing Dickens’ vision of the Victorian era to life.
Patel is at the top of his game, and Capaldi, Swinton, and Laurie are riotous. It has a wondrously diverse cast which shows that anyone can play a character in a period adaptation. This effort is often side-splitting and serious when it needs to be.
The director’s style and Blackwell’s script help the causal-like flow, and Patel and company embody these characters in a bubbly and high-spirited way.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is an absolute stunner of a film and I would advise anyone to treat themselves to one of the purest comedies. Terrific.