In recent years, having already established himself as godfather to a whole generation of British radio and TV comedy, Armando Iannucci has been branching out, creating Veep for American television and co-writing and directing the feature film The Death of Stalin. The news that he was following up the latter with this Dickens adaptation was rather curious. After all, the world and his wife are forever making new versions of the big 19th century novels. Is that what we need Iannucci to be doing?
The proof, of course, is in the pudding, and the fact is that The Personal History of David Copperfield is an utter delight. Along with co-writer Simon Blackwell, Iannucci has constructed a beguiling confection with real substance, an entertaining yarn packed with engaging characters told with skill and a helping of flair.
It’s identifiably Dickens’ (partly autobiographical) story of a young man of the 1840s grappling with money worries and status anxiety as his circumstances, and indeed his nomenclature, change at a rate of knots. Iannucci’s master-stroke lies in remaining faithful to the true spirit of the novel but refusing to be as drily reverential as your standard Dickens adaptation. Those who saw Iannucci’s 2012 BBC documentary Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens will clock that that was the theory and this is it in the practice. It’s guaranteed fustiness-free.
Perhaps he best way to explain it, and this is high praise indeed, is the Paddington effect. Those films took well-loved books and brought them to the big screen with vim, zip and a coach-load of great British actors stealing the show left, right and centre. This is a similarly pure pleasure, and yes, Ben Whishaw and Peter Capaldi are involved in both.
Fans of Iannucci’s The Thick of It will note that, where Capaldi’s concerned, there’s none of that effing and jeffing here. It has a PG certificate, after all. As Mr Micawber, Capaldi boasts an absolutely outrageous accent and fair lights up the screen, but then he faces stiff competition from Benedict Wong as bibulous businessman Mr Wickfield, Hugh Laurie as the troubled Mr Dick and This Country‘s wonderful Daisy May Cooper as Peggotty. It’s a feast of a cast who all appear to be having a whale of a time, and that’s infectious. As David himself, Dev Patel is at once vulnerable and supremely likeable. If there’s a flaw here it’s that a feature-length telling means we rattle through these fine characters, and many others, when you’d gladly spend much more time with each of them. It’s good to leave the audience wanting more, mind.
Iannucci stamps his identity on the piece too, with his trademark sense of barely contained farce. Certainly he doesn’t hold back on mining all the comedy from the tale and the result is often extremely funny. The film’s opening, with an nattering audience gathered in a theatre awaiting the start of a performance, seems to directly echo that of Iannucci’s Death of Stalin. Not all of the stylistic flourishes land perfectly, but the majority do. In an unshowy sort of way it manages to demonstrate contemporary relevance too. The cast is diverse and if you seek to find a timely message here about decency and friendship, you won’t have to look too hard.
At a preview screening Q&A at HOME in Manchester on January 6, Iannucci was illuminating about his working methods, including a slow, careful casting process and a long, loose rehearsal period. A keen reader of Dickens since his teens, Iannucci talked of retaining as much as possible of the original dialogue (and odd surreal touches) from David Copperfield while freeing it from the usual expectations and pitfalls. He sees the themes of the book as being wealth and class, and ultimately the importance of telling your own story and being yourself. He also revealed that part of the filming for Dickensian London took place over a week in Hull’s Land of Green Ginger, and that his golden rules for the production were “no Dames in the cast” and “aim for as few cobbles as possible”.
As intended, then, The Personal History of David Copperfield should be enjoyed by just about anyone, whether or not they have a working knowledge of Dickens. It bring the book to vibrant, fresh, pacy life and the result is almost irresistible fun. If Iannucci chose to knock off one of these adaptations every couple of years for the rest of his career, we’d be blessed indeed.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is on general release now