By Laurie Coker
Dev Patel seems an unlikely choice as Charles Dicken’s famous David Copperfield, but director/cowriter (with Simon Blackwell) Armando Iannucci finds gold with his star. Set in first person, we see Copperfield fight for his place in the world as a writer and gentleman. The Personal History of David Copperfield plays out perfectly – with crafty storytelling, a spunky, entertaining cast, beautiful sets, and gorgeous costuming.
The film opens with the title character (Patel) narrating his life story in an auditorium, but then moves back to time to his youth – his younger version played by talented and spunky Jairaj Varsani. True to the novel, the film chronicles Copperfield extreme rises and falls through the Victorian class system from pauper to prince (although not literally). Copperfield moves from being a manual worker in a bottling factory to a student at a somewhat prissy university, where he makes friends with stodgy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who doesn’t “care for whimsy”, and the sneaky, Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), who seethes with strangeness. Copperfield’s life takes many twists and turns on his way to success a great deal like Charles Dickens’.
Iannucci’s glorious ensemble cast shines from scene one and their characters are vivid and interesting. There is also a beautiful blend of interesting encounters set against engaging settings. There are villains and heroes, lovers and fighters and the lovable, likable and loathsome. Tilde Swinton and Hugh Laurie play David’s eccentric aunt and uncle and an array of other remarkable and well-defined characters spiritedly slide between the Copperfield’s’ narrative creativity and imagination and his reality. The whimsy that Steerforth dreads and serious moments that make the heart beat more quickly. roll out much like Dicken’s imagined. The film is engrossing, fun and beautiful. Patel breathes effervescent life into Copperfield -he’s playful, joyful and brilliant, just like Dickens penned his titular character.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is demonstrative of the craft and art that is writing and the process of creating rich and engaging stories from life experiences. The cast is diverse almost to distraction and unapologetically so and there is glee in the comic aspects of even the darker-themed scenes. Iannucci’s telling of the iconic tale earns an A in the grade book. It’s delightfully bubbly and fanciful.