Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel may not be the most obvious choice to play David Copperfield, one of Charles Dickens’ most beloved and most autobiographical heroes. But casting the popular Patel is but one of many inspired and audacious choices made by Armando Iannucci in his smart and highly entertaining adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Director Iannucci and his co-scenarist and frequent writing partner Simon Blackwell are best-known for sly political satires The Death of Stalin and TV’s Veep, created by Iannucci. In their hands, Dickens’ classic coming-of-age tale gets an energizing makeover that is absolutely true to this spirit of the novel. While unapologetically diverse in its casting, it never feels unduly PC, and is often brilliant in the originality of its storytelling.
The movie is framed as a theatrical recitation by acclaimed author Copperfield (a nod to the kinds of public readings Dickens himself staged for his rapt admirers throughout his career). As he narrates his life story, beginning with his birth, it unfolds onscreen, with the adult David popping up in the shot with commentary—one of the movie’s many charmingly surreal touches.
David’s idyllic childhood with his loving young widowed mother ends abruptly when she marries grim Murdstone, who arrives with his equally sour sister (an unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie). The spirited child David (Jairaj Varsani) is banished to London to work in a grimy factory. He’s a teenager (now played by Patel) when he learns his mother has died, and walks all the way to Dover to throw himself on the mercy of his only relative, the formidable Aunt Betsey Trotwood (a delightful Tilda Swinton).
Peter Capaldi is droll and wistfully philosophical as the impecunious Micawber, and Hugh Laurie is wonderful as the mostly befuddled but sometimes gently insightful Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey’s distant relation. He and David share a love of writing things down, giving the filmmakers ample opportunity to weave Dickens’ delicious prose into the fabric of the movie. Ben Whishaw is unctuously oozy as conniving Uriah Heep, although there’s not enough time to convey the full menace of his crimes. Aneurin Barnard’s impressively grand Steerforth seems more of a poseur than genuinely charismatic; David’s attachment to him never quite feels earned.
Meanwhile, the narrative strides boldly forward through Dickens’ busy plot, hitting most of its emotional and comic high notes. Quick and clever editing keeps the pictures moving with smooth dissolves and ingenious expositions. When David falls instantly in love with porcelain, childlike Dora (Morfydd Clark), daughter of the lawyer who employs him, he sees her face painted on a pub sign in the street, and her blonde curls adorning a passing cart driver. To keep the narrative moving, the filmmakers even have the nerve to write out a key character, at her request. (“I really don’t fit in.”) I doubt if Dickens would approve, but it’s a smart way to keep the movie’s tone consistent and focused.
This David Cooperfield looks terrific, from teeming London streets to the countryside to the seaside. Motherly Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), David’s former nurse, lives with her family under the upturned hull of a boat on the beach at Yarmouth. (A magical place vividly realized by production designer Cristina Casali.) In addition to the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, David’s surrogate family includes his aunt’s tippling but well-meaning solicitor Whitfield (Benedict Wong) and his daughter Agnes (played with good-humored warmth by Rosalind Eleazar).
Patel plays David with the right balance of open-hearted exuberance and dawning maturity. The non-traditional casting also highlights the story’s core question of identity. David earns many nicknames on his journey through life—Davy, Trot, Daisy, Doady—which are more expressions of who others need him to be than who he actually is. It’s a nifty little victory when David finally discards his nicknames to proclaim himself simply David Copperfield— the hero (at last) of his own life.
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
With Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Rosalind Eleazar, and Jairaj Varsani. Written by Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci. From the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Armando Iannucci. A Searchlight release. Rated PG. 119 minutes.