Armando Iannucci is the rare comic filmmaker who has a unique point of view. In his shows and films, he ridicules the privileged and powerful – usually through the prism of politics – and exposed the various forms of incompetence that allow this broken system to flourish. The Personal History of David Copperfield continues in that tradition, albeit in a gentler way. Profanity and insults are key components of Iannucci’s previous work, and they’re largely absent here. This is a good-natured, faithful Dickensian adaptation that is appropriate for the whole family. Iannucci’s anger is still there, except he hides it through big-hearted performances and formal flourishes that are not in his earlier films.
The opening shot is a sea of faces in a concert hall. The faces are black, brown, and white – all the colors of humanity. This is a color-blind adaptation, in other words, with Dev Patel playing the hero as an adult. He narrates the film, speaking at the concert hall as he goes through familiar episodes of success and destitution, with a colorful array of supporting characters popping into his life. The most noteworthy are Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, a down on his luck clerk who creatively eludes his creditors. Tilda Swinton plays Betsey Trotwood, Copperfield’s aunt, as an eccentric whose whims are obscure to everyone but her. Iannucci and his co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell handle this with cheer, since Copperfield’s optimism is the guiding force throughout the phases of his life.
In The Death of Stalin and In the Loop, Iannucci was mostly straightforward in his behind-the-camera approach. He gave the actors ample room to devlop their characters, filming their bouts of bizarre enthusiasm with deadpan admiration. Here his camera is more like a subjective participant in the action: in an early sequence about Copperfield’s childhood, the camera points upward from the ground, obscuring ordinary shapes to give us a youth’s point of view.
Terrence Malick is key influence to cinematographer Zac Nicholson, who jumps between Steadicam and semi-improvised handheld techniques to suggest the idyll of Copperfield’s happiest days. Like the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Iannucci weaves the act of writing into the film. Writing is not terribly cinematic, so his solution is clever. This Personal History is more about making Copperfield’s unique imagination literal.
All the actors perform with a right mix of sincerity and wickedness. Ben Whishaw plays Uriah Heep, the novel’s closest thing to a classic Iannucci idiot. Craven and cruel, he obsesses over his station and has little concern for others. The Murdstones are mean in the classic Victorian way – what they lack in humanity they make up in corporal punishment – although all these antagonists never really stop Copperfield and others from having a grand old time. That is the film’s greatest weakness: Iannucci pulls his punches so his film might appeal to a broader audience. There are parallels between his satirical hang-ups and Dickensian depictions of social class, although that kind of critique is superficial.
Who is the target audience for this adaptation? Certainly not longtime fans of In the Thick of It or Veep, who would be bored by the dearth of f-bombs. Any longtime literature fan will be annoyed by the quick, corner-cutting approach to the source material (many adaptations have ten parts of more). This is the sort of easy-going, charming fare that a discerning family might agree upon without too much arguing. Patel is a terrific leading man, deploying his considerable charisma to smooth over the rough edges, and the production values are more sumptuous than the drab colors of the typical Iannucci film. Maybe this is meant to prove he is more than a one-trick pony, and now that we know the breadth of his talents, let’s hope his next film has the ruthless edge we need.
Editor’s note: The only way to see The Personal History of David Copperfield is in a movie theater. They are closed in Maryland and the District, but some in Virginia are open. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when the film is available on streaming platforms.