It’s not hard to draw a straight line from Charles Dickens to Armando Iannucci. In each there’s a passion for human frailty and absurdity, and, above all, a richness of people. Nobody filled pages with a vivid cast of characters like Dickens, so who better to take a shot at “David Copperfield” than the man behind the teeming ensembles of “Veep,” “In the Loop” and “The Death of Stalin”?
In his third film as director, following his farce of bumbling and bloody Kremlin power struggles, Iannucci has turned to Dickens’ most quintessential and autobiographical novel with the same zeal he previously reserved for political parody. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is one of the more lively, colorful and whimsical Victorian costume dramas you’re likely to see. It’s a movie flowing with fresh air, which isn’t something normally said of adaptations of 700-something-page books.
Iannucci, famed for his improvisational style and expletive-laden barrages, clearly finds in Dickens a writer simpatico in fondness for language and taste for multitudes. In many ways, they make a good match, with Iannucci’s more anarchic, free-wheeling style animating the wit and idiosyncrasies of Dickens’ tome.
And just as in the absurdly deep bench of “Veep,” casting has made a difference. Dev Patel winningly plays Copperfield, once out of childhood (as a boy, he’s played by compelling youngsters Jairaj Varsani and Ranveer Jaiswal), with wide-eyed wonder, always alive to the world around him, if generally rather mystified by it. Still, the film belongs largely to the overall cast, including Tilda Swinton, as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood; Hugh Laurie as the mentally ill, King Charles I-obsessed Mr. Dick; Peter Capaldi as the creditor-evading Wilkins Micawber; Rosalind Eleazar as the romantic interest Agnes Wickfield; Benedict Wong as the wine-swilling Mr. Wickfield; Ben Whishaw as the plotting Uriah Heep.
The performers, a distinctly multicultural cast, add considerably to the vibrancy of the film, collectively making a fairly irrefutable argument for colorblind casting, for anyone who needs one.
But while “The Personal History of David Copperfield” keeps a restless, brisk pace as it rushes through Copperfield’s life, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell arrange the film in such distinct chapters that the movie feels more like a litany of scenes than the dramatic evolution of a young man. Some sections are better than others. The episode with Laurie and Swinton at their country home, flying kites and chasing away donkeys, is so good that you want a whole film of them.
But if Iannucci’s gift for the interplay of ensemble has a downside, it’s in situating what’s intended to be “a personal history” less from the first-person perspective of Copperfield. You come away appreciating certain bits rather than feeling the sweep of a story.
But we should all probably happily take a Dickens adaptation that risks being too funny, too zany, too sentimental. For Iannucci, whose portraits of politics past and present haven’t exactly been the stuff of idealistism, it’s also an exuberantly optimistic film celebrating the life force of art and eccentricity. Who couldn’t use a little of that right now.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic material and brief violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.