As a writer and director of motion pictures, Armando Iannucci has so far stuck to the absurd brutality of politics, both the modern day, lightly fictionalized kind (In the Loop) and the historical kind (The Death of Stalin). These are every-man-for-himself stories in which human lives are used like poker chips. And so an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield would seem like a dire departure for him. How could Iannucci’s ruthless wit survive the romance, the whimsy and, above all, the sentimentality of Dickens? Happily, not only is The Personal History of David Copperfield a triumph, it may also have more of Iannucci himself in it than anything he’s made yet.
Dev Patel plays Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani plays him in early, childhood scenes), a curious Englishman whose tumultuous life takes him from being a noblewoman’s son to being a child laborer in a factory and from a tony boarding school to a rotting tenement. But his ultimate fate, which the film recognizes from the beginning, is to become a successful novelist.
Along the way to that destination, Copperfield meets a wealth of idiosyncratic individuals, all of whom are destined to become characters in his stories. Iannucci has filled these roles with an abundantly varied roster of British actors. Tilda Swinton is the donkey-hating aunt; Gwendoline Christie a merciless taskmaster; Hugh Laurie an addlepated sweetheart; Ben Whishaw a scheming lickspittle; Benedict Wong an alcoholic barrister; Peter Capaldi a picaresque charlatan. Other thespians, lesser known to most American audiences, also shine, including Aneurin Barnard, Rosalind Eleazar, Aimée Kelly, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Morfydd Clark and Daisy May Cooper, to name just a few of the many delightful faces on screen.
Iannucci made his name in British television (as well as American, creating Veep) and one of my few complaints about his cinematic career is that his dense, joke-riddled wordplay sometime gets overpowered in a theatrical setting, with one brilliant witticism being drowned out by the laughter from the previous one, which landed only seconds before. This is, to be honest, a good gripe to have. I look forward to repeat viewings of The Personal History of David Copperfield, just as I have returned to In the Loop and The Death of Stalin multiple times.
Numerous viewings, I suspect, may also reveal more about Iannucci’s attitude toward his own career, his own calling. Copperfield adapts to his constantly changing situations because of his ability to mimic the speech patterns and dialects of those in his company. The whole movie is in English (well, Laurie does speak a bit of French) but different enclaves wield the language differently; the distinction between here and ‘ere can reveal a fraud. The Personal History of David Copperfield is not just hilarious and delightful, it’s an argument on the behalf of the loquacious Iannucci for the vitality of words and their performance to our identity and our very survival.