'The Personal History Of David Copperfield' Review: A Delightful Dickens Adaptation From Armando Iannucci [TIFF 2019]

Armando Iannucci is responsible for the acidic, acerbic dark humor that prevails in In the LoopThe Death of Stalin, and Veep. But anyone expecting more of that nasty, cutting comedic bite from Iannucci's latest work is in for a pleasant surprise. Working with co-writer Simon Blackwell, Iannucci has taken the autobiographical Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield and spun forth a film bustling with wit, grace, slapstick comedy, and one big beating heart. It's an utter joy to watch.

Introducing the film at TIFF, Iannucci stated that his The Personal History of David Copperfield would be examining Dickens's 1800s comedy through a modern lens. That might immediately make some viewers assume these 19th-century characters will be engaging in all sort of anachronistic behavior – but that's not the case. For the most part, The Personal History of David Copperfield is rather faithful to the Dickens story – but also leans heavily into the comedy. Not only was Dickens a great writer, but he was also pretty damn funny, too – something that often gets overlooked in the many stuffy adaptations of his work. With Copperfield, Iannucci shines a much brighter spotlight on the humor, with often hysterical results.

The one key liberty Copperfield takes with the text is a cavalcade of color-blind casting, with perfect results. Dev Patel is dashing and quite funny as David – the actor possesses a knack for slapstick comedy that's been underutilized until now. We follow Patel's David through the many ups and downs through his life, from wealth, to squalor, to wealth, and then back to squalor all over again. He moves from one situation to the next, encountering a wealth of colorful characters. There's Peter Capaldi, hilarious but also often pitiable as the constantly-in-debt Mr. Micawber. Tilda Swinton gets many scene-stealing moments as David's brash, donkey-loathing aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She resides with her cousin, Mr. Dick, a muddled, possibly crazy man who still manages to win us over. It helps that the character is played to perfection by Hugh Laurie, who turns what could've easily been an annoying loon into an endearing individual.

Iannucci gets playful in the telling of David's Personal History. As David narrates for us, we follow him as an adult walking through scenes that happened to him as a child – almost as if he's the Ghost of Christmas Past from Dickens's A Christmas Carol. This framing device allows Iannucci to break down walls, literally – scenes are cut short when giant hands smash into a scene, or walls literally fly up like window shades. Personal History of David Copperfield is always on the move, and the film takes a whip-crack approach to its narrative, hustling us from one place to the next while never seeming rushed – all of it set to a whimsical, soaring score courtesy of Christopher Willis.

In childhood, David starts out as a happy boy. But when his widowed mother marries the cadaverous Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who promptly invites his ghoulish sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) to move in with them, things fall apart. David gets sent away to perform child labor at a bottling company – a move that sends him on a journey from one questionable guardian to the next until he ends up on the doorstep of his reluctant aunt. Through thick and thin, David sets out to become a gentleman, making friends – like the snobby Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), and the enchanting Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), who clearly has a crush on David. But David is blind to Agnes's affections because he has eyes for the bubbly, goofy Dora (Morfydd Clark), who is fond of pretending her dog can talk.

On the page, in Dickens's prose, these characters are silly but highly memorable – and believable. But that doesn't always translate to the screen, and one miscalculation could've saddled The Personal History of David Copperfield with a cast of insufferable, quirky weirdos. Instead, the cavalcade of characters who flit in and out of David's life all make one hell of an impact. We love spending time with them – just as we love spending time with this movie in general. The Personal History of David Copperfield is so warm, so inviting, so pure, that it will make your heart sing. We don't deserve a movie as overwhelmingly charming as this, but how lucky we are to have it.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10