Movie Review: A Glorious “Personal History of David Copperfield”

Timing is everything, and if ever the time was right for a sunny, shimmering, dizzy and diversity-embracing adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” this is it.

Armando Iannucci conjures — the only word for it — “The Personal History of David Copperfield” out of Dickens’ universal truths, and the man’s unmatched ear for dialect and way with words.

Iannucci, who gave us “The Death of Stalin,” “Veep,” ” In the Loop,” and who got his start with the dark, droll and ridiculous “Alan Partridge” TV series with Steve Coogan, does two things “to” Dickens and his eponymous hero here.

The “color blind” casting underlines the master’s universality. Copperfield’s struggle to escape his past is not a white man’s journey, it is EveryJourney from poverty to gentility. And casting people of many ethnicities highlights what’s already in the book, and easily ignored. He’s not just “the hero of my own story,” we all are. And none of us make that journey alone Every heroine or hero in life and in the novel struggles, tries to make something of him or herself while maintaining dignity and returning to kindness, even when you catch yourself straying from it.

And the co-adapter/director just wallows in Dickens’ words. By framing this within young Copperfield’s similarities to his creator’s biography, Iannucci has created a Dickens adaptation that elevates the writer (if that was possible) to the very top of the list of Greatest in the English Language. This is a Dickens that compares to Shakespeare, not just in characters and emotions and plotting, but in the realm of words.

“She’s a human mangle, that woman!” “What a world of gammon and spinach!” “I regret that I missed the wedding — and the chance to meet you at the peak of your beauty.”

Yes, “The words have skates, and skim away” in this “Copperfield,” a movie that leaps to its feet and sprints away on a carpet of colorful dialect, incisive description and hilariously witty turns of phrase.

“You should write that down,” little David (Ranveer Jaiswal) is told, any time somebody in his orbit says memorable. And so he does.

We see his birth, and see and hear older David (Dev Patel, wonderful in the part) “photo bomb” the moment he came into the world, “narrating” his story as he does.

The nurse Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper) is the first quotable “Dickensian” David meets. His childhood of adoration and love in the bosom of an indulgent mother and a lot of time with Peggoty and her Yarmouth brother and kin, living in a house built out of an upside down boat hull, has David conjuring up stories as soon as he can scribble them down.

But widowed mother’s (Morfydd Clark) marriage to the cruel Murdstone (Darren Boyd), under the influence of his even more-cruel sister (Gwendoline Christie, an epic villainess) hurls David into a life as a child-laborer, working at Murdstone’s London wine-bottler.

“What lies before YOU is a fight with the world,” Murdstone declares.

That puts David in the care of the always-broke, always needing a hand-out Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his equally destitute and relentlessly upbeat wife ( his wife (Bronagh Gallagher)

David eventually rebels, rejoins his eccentric, hard-edged aunt (Tilda Swinton) and her daft cousin, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and is sent off to Mrs. Strong’s (Anna Maxwell Martin) school to become “a young gentleman,” where he befriends the snob Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) in making fun of their “inferiors,” chief among them the obsequious servant Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).

David falls for the ditzy Dora (Morfydd Clark) even as he confides in the more intellectually challenging Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), daughter of the tipsy investor (Benedict Wong) whom his sister relies on to keep the family estate, which she is manic about maintaining as “a donkey-free zone!”

Yes, there is the occasional anachronism in “The Personal History” — “Wait for it. WAIT for it!”

Yes, there are too many colorful characters, some warm and many venal, to name, all splendidly cast with the full breadth of British character actors — white, black, South Asian and Asian.

And yes, it all works, the funny bits — “I don’t care for whimsy. Sorry.” — and the poignant ones.

Iannucci’s wrangled the novel into a brisk and breezy film, which brilliantly underscores Dickens’ role as a Social Justice Warrior. “Copperfield,” with its callous, entitled and class-obsessed rich — “Your family, are you any one?” — and scrambling, shamed and morally-compromised poor, is “class warfare” from a time before the Fat Cats convinced their lemmings it was a dirty phrase, as dirty as that filthy word “socialism.”

Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Lion” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” makes the most of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to break free from “Indian” roles, and connects himself with the put-upon but plucky character, and connects this truly universal character with all of us.

Whishaw makes Uriah Heep’s “anti-hero’s journey,” from pitiable and needy to cunning and cruel, a delicious turn.

And Swinton, Wong, Eleazar, Cooper, Clark, Christie, Capaldi and Laurie make their mark on some of the most indelible characters in all of Dickens, with a couple (Laurie and Capaldi) defining them for a generation.

Iannucci’s cleverest touch may be that casting, giving a wonderful cross-section of British acting the chance to say those wonderful words, reclaim Dickens from the “Masterpiece Theater” swells.

His “Personal History” is indeed that, taking “Copperfield” into “as told-to” Dickens autobiography territory. And it reminds us of Dickens the writer, and Dickens The Man in Full — entertainer, storyteller, master of dialogue and dialect, and preacher and advocate for tolerance, kindness and social justice in a world that has always struggled to accept such sermons.

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material and brief violence. 

Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Ranveer Jaiswal, Rosalind Eleazar Peter Capaldi,, Benedict Wong, Bronagh Gallagher, Ben Whisham and Hugh Laurie

Credits: Directed by Armando Iannucci, script by Peter Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 2:01

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