‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Film Review: Armando Iannucci Meets Charles Dickens

The creator of “Veep” and “The Death of Stalin” has fun with a color-blind take on Dickens’ large and wacky cast of characters

The Personal History of David Copperfield
"The Personal History of David Copperfield" / Searchlight Pictures

You might think that Charles Dickens would be resistant to the Armando Iannucci treatment, which so far has resulted in a string of vicious political satires that raised the insult to the level of art: the British TV show “The Thick of It” and subsequent movie “In the Loop”; its American cousin “Veep,” which he created and ran for four seasons; and most recently “The Death of Stalin,” with the vicious and inept Russian politicians of the 1950s seemingly every bit as Iannuccian as Selina Meyer or the blowhards from “In the Loop.”

But Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” the novel on which Iannucci’s “The Personal History if David Copperfield” is based? How can that work in the hands of the delightfully profane Scottish writer-director?

Judging by “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, you’d pretty much be right to think that Dickens and Iannucci aren’t the most seamless fit. Iannucci has fun with the classic serial-turned-novel and throws in a bit of defiant color-blind casting for kicks, but it takes some getting used to a gentler, less biting Iannucci.

Just as Dickens’ original work was a blend of reality and fiction, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell play around with the idea of Copperfield the character as a writer who is himself writing his story as he goes along. He pulls some characters from his life, alters others and drops them into situations where they don’t belong to the point where one of them finally turns to Copperfield and tells him he really needs to write her out of the story.

This is Dickens slightly reimagined and then pushed to extremes in deliciously over-the-top performances by the likes of Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw. It’s set in a 19th-century London where nobody notices anything odd if the accountant is Asian, his daughter is black and the hoity-toity private boy’s school is a lot more racially diverse than any of them probably were in that time.

As we were with the mélange of accents (none of them Russian) in “The Death of Stalin,” we’re meant to have fun with Iannucci’s mildly transgressive take on the wild cast of characters that surrounds our hero, who is himself played by Dev Patel. Forget about race and ethnicity and have fun with these people (while knowing full well that it isn’t really like this, as much as it should be).

This is Copperfield’s journey and Patel acquits himself honorably, but it’s the wacky people around him — from the perpetually broke Mr. Micawber (Capaldi) to the eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood (Swinton) to the glowering Uriah Heep (Whishaw) that make it a trip worth taking.

Yes, you can sniff some contemporary resonance in the story of class divisions and the rich preying on the less fortunate, but mostly Dickens allows Iannucci and Blackwell to riff on the theme of an artist’s creation. It’s not as pointed or as hysterically funny as the director’s past work, and the “did he really say that?” moments are scarcer even if many of the words did originate from the pen of a rather substantial author.

But “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is never less than entertaining; there’s a reason why this story and these characters started as a newspaper serial before being turned into a novel. The story was born out of the original version of pulp fiction, and Iannucci and his cast relish every bit of the pulp.

And then, after two hours of misfortune and hilarity, we get to the real point, which is an open-hearted embrace of humanity in all its glorious strangeness and diversity. At this point, you could almost think that Armando Iannucci has a heart after all — or, perhaps, that he borrowed one from Dickens for a couple of hours.