Armando Iannucci’s terrifically likable, genial adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield taps into the author’s humanity and optimism, if perhaps at the expense of the novel’s darker side. The sad fate of Copperfield’s love Dora is not included, and also missing are a number of famous lines. Fans coming to this movie hoping to mouth along to greatest hits such as “Annual income 20 pounds …” or “Barkis is willin’” may find themselves frustrated. But Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell are concerned, in their adroit and lighthearted way, to start afresh, to tilt the interpretation a bit, to bring in a diverse cast and to re-emphasise Copperfield’s search not just for happiness but for identity, and specifically his own identity as a writer. They do it with tremendous joie de vivre.
I found myself thinking of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens: “The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail.” There is a driving force of hopeful tailwag energy here, and a relish for the drama and absurdity, the larger-than-life characters and the pure, almost dreamlike craziness of everything that’s going on. In some ways, Iannucci has gone back to the sketch-comedy world he was in before making challengingly dark or satirical material such as The Thick of It or Veep. There’s a tiny surreal hint of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and it works really well. I should also say that Hugh Laurie’s lovely performance as the sweet-natured Mr Dick is the kind of portrayal he gave us before his more sexily mature roles in House, Veep or The Night Manager; there’s a bit of his Bertie Wooster, or the Prince Regent from Blackadder. As well as everything else, it’s funny.
Dev Patel is the open-faced, open-hearted young hero Copperfield, who is brought up chiefly by his nursemaid Peggotty (a cracking performance from Daisy May Cooper), who first fires in him a love of language. But when his delicate widowed mother (Morfydd Clark) gets married to the hateful and abusive Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who installs his grisly sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) as housekeeper, poor David is sent away to an episodic series of places, some less welcoming than others. There’s a bottle factory (famously a primal scene of horror in Dickens’s own childhood), a school, a law chambers, and the rural home of his formidable aunt: Betsey Trotwood (a thermonuclear star turn from Tilda Swinton), thwhacking the donkeys off her field and kindly indulging her poor lodger Mr Dick (Laurie). It is wealthy Betsey who sponsors David’s ascent to the status of a gentleman, and he will repay her handsomely by uncovering a plot to steal all her money.
On his adventures, David will also encounter the creepily parasitic Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, inhabiting the role so utterly I almost forgot about Martin Jarvis in the 1974 BBC TV version), who insidiously encourages the alcoholism of his employer Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong); Daniel Peggotty (Paul Whitehouse); David’s charming but troubled upper-class friend Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard); and, of course, the inexhaustibly optimistic Mr Micawber and his devoted wife – one step ahead of the debt collectors, and then finally in their clutches. The Micawbers are performed with gusto by Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher, wonderfully conveying their Zen ability to make something turn up by willing it. And finally, there is the dog-loving Dora, with whom David unfortunately falls in love – played again, interestingly, by Morfydd Clark, indicating perhaps David’s desperate and Freudian need to recreate in marriage the lost comforts of home. In fine romcom style, David doesn’t see the real love under his nose: Mr Wickfield’s smart, beautiful daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar).
Iannucci’s emphasis is on the muscular forward gallop of the story – possibly taking his eye off the pathos and grownup sadness, though there is a strong focus on poverty and homelessness. But everything rattles and zings like a pinball machine, and it’s a bracing, entertaining, richly satisfying experience.
•The Personal History of David Copperfield is screening on 2, 3 and 5 October at the London film festival, and is released in the UK on 10 January.
•This article was amended on 22 January 2020 to correct the name of the character Paul Whitehouse plays.