Colourful in every sense, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a riotous kaleidoscope of characters and cameos. Period perfection and classic costumery collide with the quickfire quips and contemporary sensibilities of Armando Iannucci’s trademark approach. Dickens would’ve loved it.
Bursting through the backdrop of a theatrical telling of his personal history, David Copperfield strides across a field and into his childhood home to be present at his own birth. But his weakening mother, recently bereaved, is susceptible to stronger personalities. And while she repels the fussy selfishness of eccentric Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), she succumbs to the bullying behaviours of new hubby Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and his spiteful sister Jane (Games of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie). But by then the boy David has been carted off to a bottling factory in London with only a brief sojourn with nanny Peggotty at her oddball seaside family.
A rollicking roll-call of reechy ne’er-do-wells, foppish fools and salt of the earth sea-folk populate Davy’s fall and rise. Mr Micawber’s venial fecklessness, Mr Dick’s delusional despair, Uriah Heep’s unctuous evil, and Steerforth’s cheerful destructiveness are the warp and weft of Copperfield’s personal story. And played perfectly by, respectively, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Ben Wishaw and Aneurin Barnard – and with a wonderfully relatable Dev Patel as David.
Iannucci is the man for the job. With an ear for the comedy of words, he brings Dickens’ book to life. Copperfield jots down overheard phrases on scraps of paper, making sense of the friends, foes and strangers that surge around him. The cracking cast gets under the skin of every character. And there’s Iannucci’s curveball: a colour-blind cast, where Copperfield is Asian, Steerforth’s mum is black, Mr Wickfield’s drink-addled lawyer is Chinese. Well-established in the theatre, it’s a newer thing for cinema and Iannucci goes for it. And while it jolts the narrative in places, everyone plays a blinder.
Cinematically, it’s a joy. Redolent of Victorian England in look and feel, there’s a visual texture that almost kickstarts your olfactory sense of booze and old clothes, fields and seascapes. But as with The Death of Stalin there’s real pathos too, leavened here with the love and light of youthful attraction and finding a family in friends.
Some have hailed Hugh Laurie’s ‘return to comedy’, as the bumbling Mr Dick, beset by the belief that Charles I’s troubled thoughts have found a way into his own brain. But that assessment sells Laurie short. It’s a nuanced, sad and warmly attractive performance. Wishaw’s Heep is as dark and suffocating as an oil slick. Swinton’s donkey-phobe Trotwood is brittle and abrasive but feels the fall in her fortunes. Paul Whitehouse’s sea-dog saviour of lost children, Mr Peggotty, is as tarry-voiced and salt-stained as you’d wish.
One touch of casting curves nicely into David’s personal story, an actor appearing briefly as one character then popping up as another, in a very funny cameo, both times cutting to the heart of Copperfield’s emotional journey.
David Copperfield has the jostle and bustle of a Dickens novel, with witty one-liners and well-lived characters that leap off the screen. And while it’s a touch meta and wears a certain wokeness, really it’s a vibrant, warm, funny and beautifully acted ensemble about the sunlight and shadow in everyone’s life.