Dickensian Delights

When Armando Iannucci premiered The Personal History of David Copperfield at the Toronto International Film Festival last autumn, the question he was greeted with was thus: is there going to be swearing? The British comedy writer-producer, whose work includes political sitcom The Thick of It and his equally profane movies In The Loop and The Death of Stalin, does have form in this area. But he’s also a huge Charles Dickens fan, as his 2012 BBC documentary about the author attests.

This take on Dickens’ 1850 doorstop of a novel is a perfect family film, full of cheer and charming characters. Stripping down the narrative but ensuring to polish up the humour, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell have conjured a fleet-of-foot adaptation that takes viewers through the early life of the eponymous hero, played as a young man by Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel.

Narrating his own life story, Copperfield goes from orphan to author in a picaresque journey that takes him through Victorian London. Along the way, he encounters a vast gallery of colourful characters, brilliantly cast by Iannucci and his BAFTA-nominated casting director Sarah Crowe. Some of the performances are simply irresistible: Peter Capaldi as the pauper Mr. Micawber, Ben Whishaw as the grovelling Uriah Heep and Tilda Swinton as Copperfield’s eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood.

Best of all, Hugh Laurie brings real tenderness to the role of Mr. Dick, a distant cousin who lives with Betsey and suffers from some form of mental illness. There is also some wonderful production design, particularly the upturned converted boat on a beach where Copperfield’s family friends live. In a story about memory, and the way we can often view our childhood with rose-tinted glasses, this is the perfect embodiment of that.

When it comes to Copperfield, Patel’s casting may just be quietly groundbreaking (as the first non-white actor to play the role on screen), but frankly, he’s absolutely perfect as the optimistic character. His dexterous ability with physical comedy is a particular asset here, and he’s absolutely watchable while Iannucci whips his camera around him to create a rambunctious portrait of London 170 years ago. And, yes, he manages it all without swearing.

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens on 24 January. For more details, visit here.

James Mottram

1. Still from The Personal History of David Copperfield.