The Personal History of David Copperfield is a literary adaptation for people who don't like literary adaptations. Charles Dickens' classic story has been interpreted through the eyes of director Armando Iannucci and his writing partner Simon Blackwell, the comic geniuses behind In the Loop and Veep. They bring their particular sensibility to the tale, infusing it with offbeat humor without completely sacrificing the meaning. Purists may scoff, but aside from offering a fresh perspective on a well-known work, the movie could serve to entice newcomers to the book that inspired it.
Dev Patel plays David, and after a brief look at his troubled orphan childhood, the film speeds him up to an adult. He works in a bottle factory, goes to school, and meets a variety of colorful characters, including his donkey-hating aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton), the eccentric Mr. Macawber (Peter Capaldi), and Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), a man whose preoccupation with King Charles colors how he sees the world. They're all great, but the most memorable supporting player is Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, who starts off as a squirrely little suck-up, only to later reveal himself a cruel wannabe power player.
There is no point recapping the story of The Personal History of David Copperfield. Anyone who read Dickens' book in high school or college – or saw any of the previous adaptations – is sufficiently familiar with what happens. The draw here isn't the plot anyway; it's the tone Iannucci and Blackwell bring to that plot. They pack the movie with rapid-fire one-liners and intermittent bits of broad comedy (such as the sight of Tilda Swinton screaming and chasing donkeys with a gun). The danger, obviously, is turning the source material into a joke. As director, Iannucci avoids that because his love of Dickens' work shines through. He doesn't view the material as beneath him, or as antiquated. Instead, the humor is crafted to work within the context of the tale, with characters exaggerated just enough to be comical while remaining faithful to who they're supposed to be.
Put another way, Iannucci believes that David Copperfield remains highly relevant for contemporary audiences. Incorporating a slightly modern sensibility shows how the themes of social/financial class resonate in today's world, despite the story being set in the past. David is very aware that he's a ninety-nine percenter, although he believes his skill at writing could elevate him into the one percent. Witnessing how people like Mr. Macawber have financial problems despite appearing affluent from the outside teaches him how the world really works. The 21st century reality that the rich control virtually everything, leaving the rest of the world to scramble for as many scraps as they can get, rings through here.
Some viewers may feel the dialogue, which has the zing of an old screwball comedy, and the intentionally larger-than-life performances rob the story of its meaning. Dickens wrote a thick book with lots going on, so that may be true in some areas. At the same time, The Personal History of David Copperfield knows another “straight” adaptation is not needed. The movie is springy and funny on purpose, pausing to hit deeper emotional beats when appropriate. Consequently, you look at the tale differently, possibly even seeing new things in it because of the angle.
For my money, that's what a good screen version of a literary classic does. The fact that The Personal History of David Copperfield is so much fun to watch is a bonus.
out of four
The Personal History of David Copperfield is rated PG for thematic material and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.