Be of good cheer. Director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin) has taken a crack at Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. You say you've had your fill of Dickens. Not to worry. Iannucci and a first-rate cast very likely will change your mind.
Lively and engaging, The Personal History of David Copperfield reflects Iannucci’s understanding that the enduring appeal of Dickens has as much to do with the humor that derives from sharply drawn characters as with the ripe melodrama that often punctuates his stories.
Adopting an infectiously playful spirit, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell insist that the Copperfield story can be fun, which may explain why Personal History plays with the energy of a musical -- only without
anyone doing anything as silly as bursting into song.
Perhaps inspired by Hamilton, Iannucci creates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Copperfield. The casting works to give the story a universalist spin without becoming preachy or self-conscious.
Dickens, of course, was interested in the social issues of his time, many of which (class distinctions and maltreatment of the poor) show up in Copperfield and remain relevant in our moment of widespread distress.
But Iannucci grabs hold of something to get us and his hero through his wrenching trials. David Copperfield remains a beacon of determination and, as played by Dev Patel, a hero who shows amusing flashes of self-awareness and pluck.
If the acting in Personal History were a meal, it would be a feast of tasty comic supporting performances.
Peter Capaldi's Mr. Micawber is a charming rogue of a fellow who shamelessly compiles debts. With a brood of a family to support, Micawber constantly courts the possibility of being thrown into debtor's prison.
Tilda Swinton, at her imperious best, plays Copperfield's aunt, a woman who shares her estate with the addled Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), a man who has convinced himself that a beheaded king of yesteryear; i.e., Charles I, somehow has managed to transfer all of his thoughts into Mr. Dick's head.
A terrific Morfydd Clark tackles two roles. She appears as Copperfield's mother and later returns as Dora, the lovable but clueless beauty who captures Copperfield's heart.
The movie begins with Copperfield on a stage, telling his story to an audience. In this theatrical setting, Iannucci launches Copperfield's journey down a road that leads to his exploitation, his strange schooling, and his associations with the always tipsy Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his down-to-earth daughter (Rosalind Eleazar).
Darren Boyd portrays Murdstone, a villainous creep who -- at one point -- becomes Copperfield's stepfather and tormenter, banishing the boy to misery in a bottle factory.
No Copperfield would be complete without a Uriah Heep and Ben Whishaw more than does him justice, creating a character of such transparent unctuousness that he practically oozes off the screen.
At one hour and 59 minutes, Copperfield might be a trifle long but Iannucci moves briskly, often dispensing with such matters as exposition or transitions.
He creates the illusion of an episodic story told as if it is unfolding -- with embellishments, of course -- from Copperfield's memory: The result proves as generously entertaining as anything you might see in this strange and often dispiriting season.