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Review: Armando Iannucci’s ‘David Copperfield’ is a delightfully revisionist take on Dickens

Dev Patel in the movie "The Personal History of David Copperfield."
(Dean Rogers)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

Under the present circumstances, you should by no means go to see “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in a theater, though it’s worth noting that the opening scene actually takes place in one. The first words we hear — a tailored version of one of the famous opening lines in literature — are pointedly delivered from an empty stage. The framing is simple but effective: The “David Copperfield” we are about to see is less a definitive treatment than a meticulously stylized performance, a sly and knowing work of artifice. It’s both an overstuffed box of postmodern delights and a classically Dickensian repository of whimsy and charm.

Within moments the stage vanishes and we are whisked away to 19th century Suffolk, in a blur of activity both familiar and disorienting. By the time the imperious Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton, a hoot) drops in on her nephew’s very pregnant widow, Clara Copperfield (Morfydd Clark), drawing-room niceties have already given way to antic Terry Gilliam vibes: Clara is already in the noisy throes of labor while her loyal housekeeper, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), anxiously putters about. Meanwhile, another unexpected guest lingers by the fire: the grown-up David (Dev Patel), quietly attending the milestone of his own birth and signaling that this will be no ordinary retelling.

And why should it be? “David Copperfield” was famously the closest novel to Charles Dickens’ heart and his own life experience, and it has been a favorite of filmmakers dating back to practically the birth of cinema itself. Armando Iannucci (who co-wrote the script with Simon Blackwell) turns out to be both a logical choice of adapter and a bracingly unpredictable one. On the one hand, his virtues as a political satirist (“The Death of Stalin,” “Veep,” “In the Loop”) — a sharp eye for human eccentricity, a gift for orchestrating chaos and confusion in close quarters — spring from a recognizably Dickensian tradition. (He mounted his own spirited defense of the author in a 2012 BBC documentary, “Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens.”)

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Tilda Swinton and Dev Patel in the movie "The Personal History of David Copperfield."
(Dean Rogers)

On the other hand, he is anything but a purist. The natural comic vigor of his filmmaking seems bent on avoiding any hint of period-piece stiffness, sometimes risking a certain clumsiness in the process: At times, Zac Nicholson’s camera seems to be conducting a kind of galumphing waltz with Christopher Willis’ score. This “David Copperfield” can feel patchy and truncated in places, as any attempt to tame a 624-page novel into feature-length submission — yes, even George Cukor’s gold-standard 1935 adaptation — necessarily must. But Iannucci’s movie turns even this challenge to its advantage by regularly interrogating and interrupting its own structure. It turns the very act of writing into a journey through layers of time, memory and identity.

And it’s the question of identity that brings us to the most obvious difference between this “David Copperfield” and its many cinematic predecessors, one that must be noted here even if the movie leaves it exquisitely unremarked upon. Patel, whose David is played as a younger boy by Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani, is one of several actors of color in Iannucci’s sprawling ensemble. The others include Anthony Welsh as Ham Peggotty, who welcomes young David to the seaside town of Yarmouth (perhaps the standout feature of Cristina Casali’s splendid production design). Nikki Amuka-Bird induces a quiet chill as the socialite Mrs. Steerforth; Benedict Wong cuts a suitably tragicomic figure as Mr. Wickfield, who houses David during his Canterbury school years. And Rosalind Eleazar brings a stealthy intelligence to bear on Mr. Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes, a role often reduced to that of a long-suffering love interest.

Strict realists (if that’s the word) may reject these casting choices, perhaps dismissing them as the latest stunt of a film industry hopelessly mired in political correctness. Presumably they will register no complaint with the casting of white actors like Hugh Laurie as the affably addled Mr. Dick, Peter Capaldi (an Iannucci regular) as the always-optimistic Mr. Micawber and a memorably loathsome Ben Whishaw as the scheming Uriah Heep. The more complicated truth is that, for all the industry’s growing attention to its representational disparities (and despite the existence of “Hamilton”), colorblind casting this detailed, intelligent and purposeful remains rare, especially given the movies’ general reluctance to consider the past as imaginatively as the future.

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Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar and Hugh Laurie in the movie "The Personal History of David Copperfield."
(Dean Rogers)

Fortunately, Iannucci is a master at locating absurdity everywhere he looks, and he recognizes that few things are more absurd than ingrained prejudice and received wisdom. The sheer variety of faces we encounter in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” can be read as a sly corrective to the currents of xenophobia that critics have long pointed out in Dickens’ work. At the same time, it suggests an intuitive extension of Dickens’ own richness of characterization, the dizzying range of his human cosmos. It also dovetails with some of the themes that have recurred throughout his fiction: the gift of families, makeshift and otherwise; the emergence of unexpected friends and guardians; and the right of every individual to rise above the most precarious of stations and forge their own destiny.

Patel’s natural earnestness has rarely been more affecting or versatile, and not just because the actor melts so naturally into a top hat and tailcoat. (The exquisite costumes were designed by Suzie Harman and Robert Worley.) This isn’t the first time he’s played an orphaned young man on an epic journey of self-discovery — or shared a role with two younger actors, as he did in “Slumdog Millionaire,” a Dickensian bildungsroman in its own right.

Nor is it the first time Patel has played a protagonist who — whether he’s toiling away in a hellish London bottle factory or grappling with a friend’s unforgivable betrayal — seems to be absorbing a series of dramatic incidents rather than setting them in motion. For much of its length, after all, “David Copperfield” is the tale of a boy being shunted from house to house, some more welcoming than others, and each one leaving an indelible imprint. (The cruelest is left by the vile Murdstones, played by Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie, who regrettably do not receive their traditional tongue-lashing from Aunt Betsey. The only asses Swinton kicks in this movie, alas, are actual donkeys.)

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Morfydd Clark and Dev Patel in the movie "The Personal History of David Copperfield."
(Dean Rogers)

Even as David comes into possession of himself, his personhood remains a puzzle, as underscored by his many nicknames. Aunt Betsey affectionately calls him Trotwood; his posh schoolmate James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) calls him Daisy. And he is Doady to the woman he loves, Dora Spenlow, a character who is handled with particular wit: Played by Clark (whose earlier casting as David’s mother gives the proceedings an impish Freudian kick), she nudges the story in one of its more surprising directions.

The one doing most of the nudging is David himself: In a series of self-reflexive touches, he’s shown hard at work in between scenes and chapters, endlessly writing and revising the manuscript of his life. The representations of his process can be heavy-handed — quite literally, in the case of the enormous fist that reaches through the ceiling and snatches the young David away from one of his happiest moments. But then, as this movie at its best reminds you, real inspiration is not always subtle. Whether you think of him as Daisy or Doady, David or Dev, this young man’s ardent pursuit of his own craft gives him an implicit kinship with Iannucci, Dickens and an entire grand tradition of self-determination through art.

‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Rating: PG, for thematic material and brief violence

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Starts Aug. 28 at Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair, and in general release where theaters are open

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