Given that writer/director Armando Iannucci has made a name for himself primarily within satirical comedy – his work includes such broad comedy gems as The Death of Stalin, In The Loop, and TV’s Veep – the work of Charles Dickens doesn’t feel like the most organic trajectory. But once you forcefully scratch the surface, you realise that the filmmaker’s penchant for stretching absurdity out of his material is perfectly in tune with Dickens’ thinly-veiled autobiography.
Out with the bleak landscape of traditional Dickens work and in with a kinetic vibrancy that speaks to Iannucci’s own brand, The Personal History of David Copperfield ironically never feels that personal at all. There’s an alarming briskness to the story that we as an audience rarely are afforded the time to process each showcased moment of the titular character’s life. This seeming unbalance between the comedic and the dramatic moments both landing for impact may irk viewers seeking something more pure or traditional – even the underlying theme of classism is never really expanded upon – but the positivity that abounds within the story allows Iannucci’s impeccable cast to run wild with their non-traditional embodiments of the characters.
As David Copperfield (or is that Daisy? Or Trotwood? It’s hard to keep up with all the monikers he’s afforded throughout), Dev Patel embraces a humbleness that immediately warms us to him. Creative and compassionate, he’s a man not driven by wealth, and seeks merely to hone his own identity – a quest not helped by the numerous aforementioned nicknames he earns across the years as he weaves in and out of various social circles. In a story as grand as his – we follow him from a young boy escaping the clutches of his abusive stepfather (Darren Boyd) through to his aunt (a wonderfully wild Tilda Swinton) financing his desires to be a writer, by way of lodging with an-ever growing family of creditor-evaders (led by the suitably cooky Peter Capaldi) – Patel keeps proceedings grounded, allowing his proven co-stars to run free with their character interpretations.
In covering so much ground in a relatively short period of time though (it runs an acceptable 119 minutes, it feels remarkably quick), the film perhaps does itself a disservice in that Iannucci has clearly bonded with the material, and in not wanting to part with any specific details has given us too much to digest; one can’t help but wonder how much more fitting a TV series format would’ve been. All that being said however, this rags-to-riches-to-rags-again tale has such a blistering mentality and a genuine heart that it’s hard to not want to indulge in the film’s refreshing take on the material; and, really, any film that allows us the opportunity to view Tilda Swinton expressing her distain for donkeys has to be worth a division of a pass.