‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ review: Armando Iannucci rips up the rule book with his rib-tickling take on a literary classic

Dev Patel shines in a star-studded new adaptation of the Dickens novel

In what might be the most unlikely career move for some time, Armando Iannucci has said fuckity-bye to the world of political satire – so long Selina Myers (Veep), farewell Malcolm Tucker (The Thick Of It) – and put his razor-sharp pen to work on Charles Dickens. Luckily for us, The Personal History Of David Copperfield is the most charming period drama to have emerged in years.

An unexpected combo though it might be, Iannucci’s modern take on a Victorian classic sees the cult satirist using all of his trademark innovation and wit. Instead of drastically reinventing the well-worn tale about a boy whose mother dies when he is young, here he excels in making sure that it’s loaded with warm, inclusive humour and a star-studded ensemble cast that helps to liven up a potentially dull, old-fashioned story.

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Dev Patel, now 12 years on from his big screen debut in Slumdog Millionaire, delivers his finest performance to date in the titular role. As Copperfield, he expertly embodies the everyman awkwardly attempting to navigate the challenges of upper class society, bringing every ounce of his Hollywood-honed charm to the role. Much has been made of the film’s colour-blind casting but Patel’s exemplary turn proves why period dramas needn’t be stuffed with the same faces.

Speaking of which, Tilda Swinton is brilliant in a surprisingly comic turn as Copperfield’s donkey-phobic aunt, while Hugh Laurie steals the spotlight as Mr Dick, who is obsessed with kites. Best of all is Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep – Copperfield’s slimy adversary with a well-nursed addiction to cake. Most are rare or first-time Iannucci collaborators, but long term fans concerned about a lack of humour shouldn’t worry. The Death Of Stalin writer has a knack for pairing comic actors with whip-smart scripts – and this is used to great effect here too. In one early scene, Copperfield, still submerged in the horrors of the Victorian workhouse, is informed of his mother’s death. Far from the predictable harrowing moment, it’s unexpectedly transformed into several minutes of bleakly comic awkwardness.

However, for all its quirky, old-fashioned appeal, there are some modern themes to be explored too. The scenes where Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) battles against the bailiffs might be played for laughs, but his struggles to keep a roof over his head feel depressingly relevant nearly 200 years later. It’s the same for the film’s clever dissection of class – which sees Iannucci examine society’s ever-increasing financial disparities. As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen into 2020, we have to wonder if the joke is actually on us.

Ultimately, literary purists won’t be put off and the spirit of Dickens’ character remains intact. But this is no reverential remake. Instead, Iannucci has taken the best bits from the novel and crafted a vital story for a brand new generation of Dickens-lovers, carving himself a new career path in the process. In the words of Malcolm Tucker: “Job fucking done!”

Details

  • Director: Armando Iannucci
  • Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton
  • Release date: 24 January 2020
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