Teens going back to school: Do not watch the movie “The Personal History of David Copperfield” for class in lieu of reading the book. You will fail your exam.
However, the many, many liberties Scottish director Armando Iannucci takes with Charles Dickens’ story — from flashback projections on walls to a newfound farcical sense of humor — are what makes this film such an unexpected joy to watch.
Generally, Dickens brings to mind soot, Scrooge and a hungry child saying, “Please sir, can I have some more?” Yet this warped tale of a scrappy boy hustling through life as he’s passed along from home to home is fun as hell.
That’s because Iannucci’s film realizes that, when you spend much of your days living in hell, you still need some R&R.
Little David (Jairaj Varsani) has his Victorian England childhood abruptly snatched away when his widowed mother marries the evil Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who sends the kid off to work in his London factory. After bolting out of that den of cruelty, he is shuffled, by force or by choice, to eccentrics, knaves and pretty blond airheads. Everywhere the now adult David (Dev Patel) lands, he is unwittingly absorbing colorful anecdotes for the book he hopes to write one day.
And that best summarizes Iannucci and screenwriter Simon Blackwell’s style: What’s going on inside a writer’s brilliant, bonkers brain?
With all the flourishes, you still care a ton about David’s fate: Patel is a perpetually underrated actor who tends to be ignored for bigger co-stars (Nicole Kidman in “Lion”) or subsumed by the movie he’s in (“Slumdog Millionaire”). That’s a shame because he is remarkably versatile, more so than slightly younger hotshots such as Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges, and off-the-charts likable.
Here, although he’s the straight man to a Rolodex of wackos, he gets to show off his strong comic chops. The film has him running around like a hamster on a wheel, rarely getting to sit down and take a breath. When Murdstone and his dictator of a sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) tell David his mom has died, it turns into a Monty Python sketch.
The entire cast is wickedly good, and their overblown characters are what keep the Dickens spirit alive.
Copperfield’s boss at the bottling factory is a spherical gent who rarely stands up and speaks in a slow wheeze. Former Dr. Who Peter Capaldi plays Micawber, an infamous London debtor David stays with, like he’s a peacock doing stand-up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben Whishaw, to prepare for the role of suck-up corporate-climber Uriah, locked himself in a basement for a year. And Tilda Swinton does an amazing Tilda Swinton.
Every cast member is hilarious. Dickens will be LOL’ing in his grave.