Iannucci spins a classic with ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” – “I hadn’t read ‘David Copperfield’ for a long time.  I reread it about 8 or 9 years ago, and I was struck by how modern it was.  The themes in it are very, very 21st century.  It’s all about status anxiety.”  – Armando Iannucci, January 2020

I’ve read a fair share of classic literature, but sadly, I never picked up “David Copperfield”, Charles Dickens’ novel about an Englishman’s 19th-century chronicle told in the first person.  During my 20th century secondary education, either my high school passed over this particular book in favor of “A Tale of Two Cities”, or I succumbed to a two-week illness that also blockaded my memory of it.  No matter the reason, I carried some apprehension – due to a lack of perspective – walking into Armando Iannucci’s take on this renowned story.

Then again, since the acclaimed director/writer of “In the Loop” (2009), “The Death of Stalin” (2017), and the television series “Veep” (2012 – 2019) helmed this project, most moviegoers – including this critic – should anticipate hearty helpings of humor with occasional brushes of absurdity over a 119-minute runtime.

Iannucci and his flat out brilliant cast – led by Dev Patel in the title role – does not disappoint, as “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.  Tonally, Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (2016), based on Jane Austen’s novella, is a close comparison.  In that movie, Kate Beckinsale governs the screen – in a whip-smart, hilarious performance – as Lady Susan Vernon, who seems to operate three chess moves ahead of nearly everyone who stumbles into her view.

“Love & Friendship” (2016) does become complicated at times, as humor and nuance weave through the lightning-fast discourse that lobs grenades and throws daggers over (perceived) pleasantries.  In other words, pay attention, and who knew that the woman portraying a vampire in the “Underworld” series could wildly rule over a comical, sarcastic period piece.  Well, Beckinsale did attend Oxford, so there’s that.

Iannucci’s “Copperfield” project is zany and kinetic, and it plays like a wholesome family film, free of expletives and adult subject matter.  It is rated-PG, a departure from “Loop” and “Stalin”, both rated-R.  Here, many of the colorful characters exaggerate their status and intent.  This way, the audience – including grade school-aged kids – can immediately discern the on-screen players’ roles during Copperfield’s (Patel) winding journey through financial and family hardships, stretches of grace and joy, and attempts at upward mobility that do not follow straight trajectories.

Patel is wholly engaging as Copperfield, a man seemingly tossed – through fate, helping hands, and blind luck – into haphazard turns at several crossroads.  He treks on figurative roller skates between London and several townships located northeast and southeast (like Yarmouth and Dover, respectively) of England’s most bustling metropolis.

As the film opens, David announces that he will share his life’s tale by declaring, “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these moments must show.”

Naturally, the most logical beginning is his birth – “on a Friday at 12 o’clock at night” – and he describes his observations (as a baby), which include the recognition of his family’s thoughtful servant Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and her rough fingers that regularly reach into his bassinet.

Geez, Copperfield has some memory!

If only Peggotty’s scratchy touch was David’s worst adversity.  Soon, a force outside his mother’s sphere of influence deports him to London, and the School of Hard Knocks teaches David harsh lessons, ones before unions organized and governments enacted child labor laws.

The screenplay’s themes of wealth versus poverty and the powerful versus the powerless regularly display their external struggles, but the formers (nearly) always squash the dreams of the latters.  The immovable and ever-present caste system is extremely tricky to outwit or outrun.  While David repeatedly attempts to break free from these invisible chains, they yank him three steps back just after he took two forward.

Wait, how is this funny?

Thankfully, Iannucci and company serve these troubling concepts with whimsy, mostly extending from David’s allies.  His aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and the semi-lucid Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) are a madcap pair.  Betsey is “fierce, like a birthing badger” and a bit heavy-handed with the random donkeys who trample her meadow.  Still, this tightly-wound, OCD-leaning aunt cherishes her relationship with David and Mr. Dick, a likable fellow, even though he thinly comprehends the meaning behind any consequential conversation.  Think Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) from “Cheers” but with more polish.

If David rolls through life on eight small wheels, Betsey and Mr. Dick draw up the half-pipes, baked and vert ramps, and wax the ground beneath his feet with altruistic intentions.  D.C. meets other supporters like Peggotty’s brother Daniel (Paul Whitehouse), a patriarch – Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) – caught in a debtor’s prison, a close friend Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and her father Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), and a few others who help him square against the murkier forces within his orbit.

All the while, he attempts to reach his perceived nirvana – which is to live like a gentleman – but he hides his previous experiences while becoming tangled in current ones.  David’s name seems to change as often as Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher (Chevy Chase) in “Fletch” (1985), but rest assured no one calls him, “John Coctostan.”

Despite David’s moniker changes and insecurities, his traveled roads on roller-boots connect the aforementioned John and Jane Q. Citizens, but will he reach his hopeful goals?

Well, you have to watch the movie, a most playful delight with all the period film trimmings, including beautiful costumes, sets, and locales.  High school teachers should take notice and screen this movie as a grand audio/visual accompaniment to the novel.

I mean, I think so.  I haven’t read the book.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures; Trailer credits: SearchlightPictures

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