As suggested by his use of its full title, Armando Iannucci is clearly a man who knows and loves his Dickens.
That might be surprising given the cynical, politically-driven worldview Iannucci is known for versus Dickens’ warm, colourful humanism, but the social issues of the Victorian era are very much in evidence today.
Using the adult David Copperfield (a warm, winning Dev Patel) as both guide and narrator, we are immediately thrust – via first the proscenium arch then a projection screen – into The Personal History Of David Copperfield.
This meta-textual approach – we see the older David, stood of his mother’s shoulder, from the diffuse POV of his newborn self – could be distancing, but it lends a fantastical quality that allows Iannucci to really bring Dickens’ prose to life. When the tyrannical Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd with boot black hair) intrudes into young David’s (Jairaj Varsani) idyllic existence, we see his hand thrusting through the paper ceiling of a family-home diorama to snatch David up. When David is exiled to make his way in the world, the carriage takes off from his bedroom, clattering away to the bottle factory.
The film doesn’t elide the hardship David undergoes – docked half a day’s pay for breaking a single bottle – but, as Dickens did, introduces a charm and whimsy to it. There’s a bit of slapstick involving the bailiffs seizing the scant property of the maniacally genial Wikins Micawber (Peter Capaldi reprising his Cockney accent from Paddington), with whom David is lodging; reaching through windows or hauling the carpet out under the front door. A drunken night out is presented in the style of a silent movie – sped-up tomfoolery set to a plinky piano.
When David falls for the simpering, ringletted Dora (Morfydd Clark), he sees her name written in the clouds and on shop signs.
Beneath the style and inventiveness, though, is sincere, if understated, emotion and empathy; from the troubles of Mr. Dick (a warm, winning Hugh Laurie), plagued by memories of another life, to David’s own enduring fear of runination, exasperated by a manor-born schoolmate, the Wildean, self-destructive Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard).
David Copperfield may be, and indeed is, a costume drama, but Iannucci’s stated intention, as he said at a Q&A following a screening I attended, was to make it seem present, in which he’s succeeded. For instance, the colour-blind casting – such as in Benedict Wong’s tragicomically boozy Mr. Wickfield – makes for an immediately recognisable metropolitan London.
Zac Nicholson’s cinematography is handsome and painterly, but never staid, and Christopher Willis’ charming orchestral score sweeps us along, but, as with all Dickens’ adaptations, it’s the cast that make it.
I grew up watching the ’90s BBC version of David Copperfield, with Daniel Radcliffe as the young David, Bob Hoskins as Wilkins Micawber, Maggie Smith, and Pauline Quirke, and – while I prefer Nicolas Lyndhurst’s crawlingly unctuous Uriah Heep, long pale fingers creeping along your arm, to Ben Whishaw’s servile, basin-headed incarnation, lingering, soft-focus, in corridors – these latest incarnations stand side by side with the figures from my childhood without effacement.
Childhood and growing up, coming into our own, are key, of course, to Dickens’ canon – David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist – which may contribute to their unshifting place in the GCSE English curriculum.
If you’re looking for a film adaptation to bring Dickens to life for a bunch of disinterested students, you could do worse than this witty, imaginative take. Just maybe keep them away from The Death Of Stalin for a bit.