Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece, the 624 page autobiographical novel “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery,” otherwise known as “David Copperfield,” has been adapted for the screen 14 times over the last 110 years, which includes eight films and six TV miniseries.
So what else could be done with the material to make it fresh and interesting?
Known for his darkly barbed political satires “In The Loop,” “The Death of Stalin” and “Veep,” Armando Iannucci is the unlikely yet perfect auteur to put his stamp on Dickens’ novel.
He and co-writer Simon Blackwell, a frequent collaborator, set out to do something entirely new with “David Copperfield,” which is allow it to be funny. Iannucci and Blackwell sought to draw out the humorous and farcical elements of the novel, to dislodge it from its stodgy Victorian setting, infusing it with color and whimsy and a dash of the surreal.
They have taken Dickens’ epic and pared it down to the essentials, and the laughs. The result is quite airy, yet also a soulful tale about writing, and owning, your own story.
Although typically Dickensian details of wretched existences abound, it has the pace and tone of a Jane Austen romp. It allows the imaginative details of Dickens’ writing to soar, visually, with embellishments of magical realism sewn in throughout, and a decidedly bright and busy approach to costume and production design.
Dev Patel carries the story beautifully as the titular character, in a role that allows him to demonstrate his comedic chops while also playing the straight man to a host of over-the-top characters. He has a subtle comedic style, at once bemused, concerned, but also honorable, which makes him a trustworthy and likable narrator.
Patel faces off with a host of Britain’s best and most formidable comic actors as the characters who orbit David Copperfield’s life, from his stern aunt Betsy (Tilda Swinton) and her loopy pal Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), to Peter Capaldi, who steals the show as the hapless debtor Mr. Micawber, with whom a young David lodges as a young worker in the bottle factory of his evil stepfather.
The cast isn’t just filled with beloved character actors it is full of discoveries as well. There are newer faces, such as the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, as well as new sides to familiar faces, including Benedict Wong as the drunken Mr. Wickfield, Ben Whishaw playing the main antagonist, Uriah Heep, and Aneurin Barnard, who briefly impressed in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” given far more time to demonstrate his chops here as upper-crust rapscallion James Steerforth.
Throughout his life, David keeps scraps of paper with sayings and turns of phrase, the only precious possessions of a boy who has nothing. He learns how to navigate the harsh truths of the world, and how to present himself, telling stories and tales and weaving himself a life story.
But sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves paper over the ugly parts we want to run away from, and it’s only when we own every part of our story that we can be free to be authentically ourselves. It’s a powerful message that comes through in Iannucci and Blackwell’s take.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is available to watch only in theaters right now, and while it is a delightful film and a fresh new adaptation of the book, please use the utmost caution when going to movie theaters, and follow all the health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. When in doubt, put it on your to-watch list when it becomes available to stream at home.