Charles Dickens’ autobiographical novel David Copperfield has been adapted before, but it’s still surprising that acclaimed director Armando Iannucci chose to make this his latest feature. Best known for his cynical and acerbic skewering of politics in THE THICK OF IT (2005-2012)and VEEP (2012-2019) as well as films like IN THE LOOP (2009) and THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018), Iannucci isn’t an obvious fit for a sentimental Victorian tale. However, he condenses the 600-page novel, with co-writer Simon Blackwell, to an easy-going two hours, embracing family-friendly whimsy whilst maintaining his social consciousness
Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (2019) is a comedy and not the hard-hitting drama some may assume. The dialogue is as witty as most of Iannucci’s work but is softened to produce heartfelt laughter rather than something tinged with the bitter aftertaste of realism. Within tragedy, Iannucci finds ways to be funny, utilising the stellar supporting cast for comedic highlights. Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie steal the show in this regard, maintaining high spirits whilst embodying desperation. Ben Whishaw’s turn as Uriah Heep, one of Dickens’ greatest villains, is perfectly slimy and quietly malicious, standing apart from the proud and confident personalities of everyone else. Dev Patel also gives a compelling turn as the titular lead, anchoring everything in a film mostly of caricatures.
Compared to his earlier works, Iannucci embraces a different style in David Copperfield. It is more conventional and dazzling but compared to the vérité techniques his best comedies are known for, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is not really a more stylised film. There’s postmodern artistic flourishes though, with projections appearing in key scenes and a reflexive structure that pretends events are as real as can be remembered, tying into the conceit that this is about storytelling where life’s journey is inherently absurd. Utilising a lush Dickensian production design, David Copperfield has a fantastic sense of time and place. For a film about class and the pretence around it, creating the feeling of a lived-in world allows David to truly straddle both
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is not hugely inventive, nor a film that showcases the best of its creator. However it’s a wholesome take on a literary classic that propels the past to contemporary relevance. With so many great characters and an absurd humour that rarely missteps, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is a commendable adaptation.