Armando Iannucci’s great, rollicking follow-up to the hit The Death of Stalin is a glorious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. This is Dickens’ own Personal History: Iannucci is synthesising David and Dickens himself. David (an engaging Dev Patel) begins on stage, then strides into the action. He comperes events as both narrator and protagonist. Inter-titles bookend the story, in keeping with Dickens’ own episodic text, and the clever conceit of David keeping quotable lines from his rollercoaster life prefigures David’s later writing success.
The brilliant writing of Iannucci and Simon Blackwell makes for a delightful two hours. Gems like “You’re stealing an honest man’s chicken!”, wailed by an anguished Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and “This is a donkey-free zone!” from Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) pepper David’s odyssey.
What’s more, this exhilarating film maintains the theme of verbal creativity. This is far from a bland period adaptation. Lacking the cynicism of Iannucci’s political satires, the film nevertheless makes its points thoroughly, and with a warm heart. That heart is personified by a wonderful cast. This careering juggernaut, telling of ruin and recovery, is the perfect vehicle for fulsome character acting. Morfydd Clark, Hugh Laurie, Paul Whitehouse, Darren Boyd, Benedict Wong and others have great, broad fun.
And it’s meaningful fun. The point some critics are missing is that Dickens and Iannucci belong to the same strain of fierce British satire. David’s remarkable odyssey gives us a wonderful ensemble cast and brings to life the genius of Dickens’ work. The frequent descent into absurdity, rich characterisation, abrupt changes of mood – these reveal, strikingly, Victorian snobbery, prejudice, and pretension. Armando Iannucci is a sharp cookie, and there are clear parallels with the modern world. Chance, a trivial mishap, the unruly ripples from some far-off disaster – these could, and still can, suddenly turn lives for the worse. You don’t need to be a child whose father is shipped off to the debtors’ prison to feel the anguish in Dickens’ stories.
This story in particular swings violently from joy to misery and back again. We smile when Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) and David finally get together; the story has transported us magically hither and thither to great effect. And the film is all about its diversity, its myriad of contrasts. The razor-sharp bantering dialogue – familiar from Veep, The Thick of it etc., is like a summer breeze on a dark winter’s day. In the same way, the crowded canvas nails the vagaries and vicissitudes of David’s Personal History superbly. By the time of the classic Dickensian surfeit-of-food-and-jollity conclusion, the film has reminded us of the thin line between happiness and misery. And it has made us think of how we might treat one another.
In Scottish cinemas from January 24th 2020