Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, who co-wrote and created The Thick of It before taking their now-famous brand of sweary political satire across the pond to further acclaim with Veep, certainly made a brave choice when they chose Charles Dickens’ autobiographical novel as the source of their next project. A New Yorker article on the politics of Brexit, say, might work as a Death of Stalin-type disaster-fest; or we could expect a Succession-type dramady centred on just about any feature of our politics at the moment. (Succession is incidentally a creation of fellow Thick of It alum Jesse Armstrong, who wrote the comeback feature from Four Lions director and another veteran of the Iannucci School of British Satire, Chris Morris.)
Brave, then, that was, and this is. A buoyant tone and a frequently genteel sensibility – with some genuine directorial flair thrown in from a previously uninventive technical filmmaker – make The Personal History of David Copperfield a big step sideways in the careers of those who made it. The same applies to the members of a remarkable ensemble, which includes Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw in support of a stellar Dev Patel in the titular role. Only Laurie looks really at home in the slapstick-period genre (on Blackadder he helped invent that) but that’s not to suggest anyone is letting the side down. As with The Death of Stalin, which also premiered at Toronto, Iannucci once again draws atypically funny performances from character actors (in the former film Simon Russell Beale, this time Ben Whishaw) alongside an uncanny ability to draw out greatest hits from legendary comic performances (first Michael Palin, now Hugh Laurie).
To say that David Copperfield is anything other than an injection of life into a 170-year-old, 600-page novel wouldn’t do it justice. It tries to do for the Dickens classic what the Best Picture-winning musical Oliver! did for its somewhat more famous source material in 1968, offering a facelift to a story that might otherwise struggle to connect with younger audiences today while maintaining the playfulness that underlines much of Dickens’ book. Those who have adapted his work in recent years have avoided or failed to present that humour – Roman Polanski, Alfonso Cuaròn and Robert Zemeckis have been defeated in that effort by three different Dickens novels in the past 20 years – but Iannucci and Blackwell can be pleased to have reimagined the jolliest Dickens we’ve seen since Oliver! If casting Paul Whitehouse was a clear statement of intent in that direction, unconventional but amusing turns from the likes of Benedict Wong and Gwendoline Christie will surprise those who have become accustomed to their dourer work.
Though that’s not to say that this isn’t occasionally dour, as – again – all Dickens tends to be. Iannucci insisted from pre-production that this would not be a “cobbled streets” take on the novel, promising to resist the temptation to bask in a Victorian setting that Dickens himself satirised and lambasted frequently. One feature of Iannucci’s revanchism – and in this day and age perhaps a much-needed one – is its reasonably diverse cast. Another example is the presentation of poverty and homelessness, a lifestyle Dickens himself came to know well while his father lived on-and-off within a debtor’s prison. Iannucci told red carpet journalists that Ken Loach was his greatest inspiration in the project; it’s in these moments that that inspiration seems to pay off. Otherwise, Iannucci is a far flashier director than we have come to know, this time putting his camera on the pendulum of a grandfather clock and opting for scene transitions that would make Star Wars look modest.
But where it’s classic Iannucci and Blackwell is in their area of expertise: David Copperfield is funny. Although it’s a family-friendly film above all, with not a single swear word (!) in its dialogue, Copperfield is filled with subversive and self-aware jokes that keep an often-heavy story light on its feet. Still, this is a double-edged sword: the imbalanced stacking of the story’s happy events towards the beginning leave the final 15 minutes to rush through a number of chapters, and the laugh count suffers. The film’s conclusion might lose some who’d previously held on to a quick-moving vehicle.
At its dramatic height, David Copperfield is an ode to creativity and a different kind of coming-of-age story, centred on a writer finding his voice as much as a boy finding his purpose. Iannucci and Blackwell here are perhaps at their most self-absorbed, but the personality in these scenes is self-evident. To hone in on a central theme of any Dickens story is ambitious, but this is in some ways an ambitious film. Iannucci has done satire and cynicism before, and this is a creative U-turn reminiscent of Nicola Murray at her finest. This critic, for one, highly awaits his next.