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A film to make some hypothetical, not terribly well-read movie critic wish he’d carved out time in his teens for Charles Dickens, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield turns the author’s well-loved autobiographical epic into a fast-moving yarn, sometimes hilarious and always entertaining.
A break in more ways than one from his savage political satires — can the man behind The Thick of It really coexist with this much optimism? — the result is less jarring than Iannucci’s fans may expect. Certainly the most commercial of his three theatrical features, it pleases without pandering, and has found an ideal title character in the form of the always-winning Dev Patel.
Patel is just the most obvious of many color-blind casting choices here, all of which serve the film well. He’s our guide from start to finish, even in scenes he shouldn’t be in: Having stepped onto a stage to read the story in a framing device, the adult David is immediately transported to the scene of his own birth, hastening across a field to observe his mother in labor. Before the birth, we witness the cheerfully sharp wit of the family’s housekeeper, Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), who gives a brisk brush-off to Mrs. Copperfield’s pushy sister-in-law Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton).
Soon the three dimensions of the house called The Rookery flatten out, fall away, and we’re in the first of David’s many temporary homes: a fantastical tiny house, built on a beach in an overturned boat, where Peggotty and her husband raise other cast-away kids. David’s widowed mother is courting, and the man she marries (Darren Boyd’s Edward Murdstone, who towers in a suddenly small-seeming Rookery) is mean. Little David has been writing and drawing everything he observes for some time, but he finds himself unable to read when pressured by Edward. Assuming his new stepson is dense, Murdstone ships him off to London, to toil in his bottle-making factory for the next decade or so. He lodges with the debt-dodging Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), whose creditors — the jackals — are shockingly insistent on stealing back whatever meager possessions the Micawber home still contains.
Then his mother dies, and David, set adrift, walks from London to Dover to find the only family he knows. Aunt Betsey proves more generous than we would have guessed earlier, and her country home is a madhouse: Swinton is boldly nutty in the part (more lovably so than in some of her other outre roles), and has a fine foil in Hugh Laurie’s Mr. Dick, Betsey’s gently off-his-rocker cousin.
In blazing his trail to this part of the story, Iannucci has shown more visual invention than in his earlier work, with dazzling little transitions that help us not to be too grumpy about how little time we spend in some sequences. (Some earlier Copperfield adaptations have run to over a dozen television episodes; the filmmakers must do much close shaving to reach 120 minutes.) But in Betsey’s friendly nuthouse, the pic relaxes slightly, getting to know those who will play the biggest roles in our hero’s young adulthood: Trotwood’s happy-drunk business manager Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong); his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), who clearly adores David despite being viewed as a sister; snobbily charming James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), a classmate at the boarding school he attends; and Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), an obsequious worker at that school who is sneakier than he seems. And then Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark), the sweetly daft daughter of David’s future boss, who steals his heart.
If there’s too much plot in the film to jam into this synopsis, be assured there’s too much plot in the novel to fit in the film. Adapting the book with co-writer Simon Blackwell, Iannucci gracefully rewrites some major plot elements (let them be surprises for those who know the story too well), rearranges others and repurposes characters who simply can’t be dismissed along with their discarded storylines. (As the grandiloquent Micawber, Capaldi becomes a very entertaining bad penny, showing up in the oddest places hoping for a quid or two.)
Graciously, the movie’s star almost lets himself disappear from time to time, stepping out of the way of the famously colorful figures surrounding Copperfield. For a character who is learning more and more to observe those around him — he mimics their mannerisms when alone, making sure he can describe them correctly — it’s a natural approach to the part; but Patel’s oft-displayed charm prevents others from upstaging him.
Constantly being sent off to some new home or given a new name that doesn’t suit him, David sometimes seems as if he’d disintegrate if he were to lose his bundle of character studies made on scrap paper. Turns out, there’s money in those observations — and a happily-ever-after to go with it.
Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, Film4, Wishmore Entertainment
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Jairaj Varsani, Paul Whitehouse, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welch, Benedict Wong
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriters: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
Producers: Kevin Loader, Armando Iannucci
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Simon Blackwell, Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Costume designers: Suzie Harman, Robert Worley
Editors: Mick Audsley, Peter Lambert
Composer: Christopher Willis
Casting director: Sarah Crowe
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
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