Directed by comedy legend Armando Iannucci, and co-written by frequent collaborator Simon Blackwell, The Personal History of David Copperfield keenly adapts Dickens’ famous autobiographical tome into a slim, crowd-pleasing comedy of manners; and although some of the richness of its source material has been lost, the power of its social conscience and humanist themes remains.
Cruelly separated from his mother and consigned to a factory at a young age (as was Dickens himself, the first of many parallels between the author’s life and his work), David Copperfield charts his rise, fall, and rise in a ruthless world; first of all from the workhouse and the lodgings of the perpetually indebted Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), to the care of a devoted but irascible aunt (Tilda Swinton) and her cousin, Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie, perfectly cast as a man who believes the wandering thoughts of the late Charles I have settled inside his head).
With Mr Dick, David shares his habit of unburdening himself in writing – the practice of observing the people around him and writing down his observations onto scraps of paper. It’s also here that many of Dickens’ immortal turns of phrase are crystallised. While Iannucci’s adaptation favours a contemporary mode of dialogue, the script occasionally makes space for what might be called a Dickensian register, a sort of mashup approach. A homeless character characterises his living situation as being “primarily al fresco”, and another is described as being “fiercer than a birthing badger”. It’s a peculiar mix, and the script doesn’t fly with the profane majesty that Iannucci’s In the Loop or The Death of Stalin did, but the result still sparkles with wit.
As the years go by, and David’s fortunes continue to fluctuate, his orbit aligns with those of Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) and Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark). As Spenlow, Clark is wonderfully air headed, with a touch of sadness, while Eleazar commands the screen in her very first film role. The romance subplot provides a little narrative drive, but as an audience, we’re really just hoping that everything works out for David and his tight circle of friends and family.
While the film makes short work of Dickens’ epic novel, cramming it into a lean 120 minutes, the characters are given their due – Iannucci’s background in sitcom, and his impeccable casting, helps them to make strong impressions with precious little screen time. Special praise must go to Ben Whishaw’s magnificently obsequious Uriah Heep, a servant at Copperfield’s boarding school, who silently absorbs the contempt and pity of his superiors and eventually repays them in kind. But the star is Dev Patel himself as David – a relative newcomer among a stacked roster of talent, he conveys sensitivity, wit and wide-eyed wonder with aplomb. Producer Kevin Loader says that Patel was their only choice for the title role, and it’s not hard to believe.
As the loop of the narrative closes itself, David Copperfield reveals itself to be a heartfelt tribute to the importance of reclaiming one’s history – of re-moulding hardship and pain into something brilliant and redemptive. It’s also a paean to the virtues of charity and decency, something which audiences still crave nearly two centuries after Dickens wrote his book. Judging from the mood of the sold-out screening at the London Film Festival today, David Copperfield will be something of a hit when it eventually arrives in January.