Film Of The Week

Words Harry Langham 

The Personal History of David Copperfield review – cockle-warming return to the past brings hope of a brighter future


If some movies are “feel-good”, then Armando Iannucci’s kaleidoscopic adaptation of Dickens’s career-defining bildungsroman is a veritable shot in the arm with the happy stuff, an IV dopamine booster that would warm even the icy cockles of Scrooge himself. It is a triumph of comic imagination, a mazy journey of self-discovery centred around the attempts of its narrator – played by a charmingly blundering Dev Patel – to discover whether or not he is the hero of his own story. Patel is accompanied by a glorious ensemble of actorly talent, cast according to a principle of colour-blind inclusivity which succeeds in warding off the seductive allure of unthinking nostalgia. 


What comes through particularly strongly from Iannucci’s adaptation is an emphasis on the power of storytelling. When we first meet our self-effacing hero he is beginning a recitation of his personal history in front of an audience, and the action that follows is thus shown to be the product of memory and authorial representation – a fact to which Iannucci alludes throughout with his use of punctuating chapter-like headings and self-consciously artificial scene transitions. Iannucci wants us to be clear that this is not just a story, but rather a story about story, a story about reflection, recollection and recreation (in the most ludic sense of the word). 


Dickens’s never knowingly understated characters are realised in all their extravagant absurdity. They revolve around David like satellites, appearing, disappearing and reappearing over and over again as if aboard some dreamy carousel. Peter Capaldi is Houdini-like as the wiry, debt-ridden Mr Micawber, Tilda Swinton delightfully sharp as donkey-swatting Betsey Trotwood, Brian Wong well-placed as the bibulous Wickfield, whilst Hugh Laurie dithers his way into your heart as distracted Mr Dick. Shining above the rest however, is Ben Whishaw’s brilliantly hateable performance as the cloying sycophant Uriah Heep, whose oppressive presence lingers in the air like a stale fart, long after he has vacated a room. 


The production design and set decoration of Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx work together with Suzie Harman’s costume work to form a carnival of colour, whilst the cinematography of Zac Nicholson is infused with a sense of playful possibility – a refreshing move away from the dreary palettes and prosaic techniques of remakes past. For as much as Iannucci looks backwards, finding light in the often murky reality of Victorian life, his is a vision from the future, a paean to progressiveness. What becomes clear, when watching this joyous adaptation, is that it is not colour nor creed that binds humanity, but the all-embracing power of story.