I feel no shame in admitting that I’ve always struggled to get on with Charles Dickens and, with the exception of Great Expectations in A-level English, haven’t really ever managed to fully read any of his books. Coming into The Personal History Of David Copperfield then, I very much approached it as a fan of director Armando Iannucci rather than Dickens.
Following on from the none-more-black comedy The Death Of Stalin, the tone here is very different as, from the off, we are dropped into a far brighter and lighter world where the tale of our titular hero whips along at frantic pace from his birth onwards.
While I’m sure the story is known to many it was new to me though many familiar names cropped up from Uriah Heep to Mr Micawber and others besides, but what really stood out about them here was the cast.
Packed with familiar faces including Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse, Hugh Laurie and more they do a great job of inhabiting the characters in such a way that certain preconceptions of the performers are used to bring something to the characters, while never feeling like stunt casting.
At the centre of this maelstrom of talent is Dev Patel as David Copperfield and he really does do a terrific job.
Appearing in almost every scene (yes even his own birth, thanks to a clever narrative trick) he owns the film and holds it all together all while being entirely un-showy.
In the hands of many actors in major films this would have become one of those ‘look at me acting’ type performances but with Patel we simply are able to look at him playing the character with an amazing energy.
Along with Patel, Whishaw is excellent as the snide and snivelling Heep, even though I did feel the character’s villainy and Whishaw’s portrayal of it were given slightly short shrift, but this kept to the over all tone, while Laurie and Capaldi as Mr Dick and Micawber do threaten to steal the whole thing with their sheer enthusiastic eccentricity at points.
The aforementioned narrative trick is something that really helps drive the film along at quite a pace, particularly early on, as the whole thing is bookended by Copperfield on stage reading his story.
This gives the impression from the start that this may not be entirely real but is his version of events, as the title also suggests, which is a neat way of making the whole thing work with the feeling of a rather whimsical jaunt rather than something of overbearing importance as Dickens is often presented as.
I think somewhat taking a note from Dickens own world view, but not overplaying it, Iannucci has chosen to take a ‘colourblind’ approach to casting with performers of many races and ethnicities being used across the board which does, in its own way, make a subtle gesture at modern diversity and how the point of the story’s view of class and the issues that go with it remains relevant now as much as it was in the mid-1800s.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield then may not be a blatant gut punch in the way of the satirical and dark The Death Of Stalin but, in a way, feels like it’s whimsical and fun younger sibling sharing certain stylistic flourishes and tones while showing Iannucci is far more than ‘just’ a serious political filmmaker and capable of delivering a good fun couple of hours with a suitable extra depth if you want to find it.