It’s unlikely that anyone would ever characterize a Charles Dickens novel as breezy, but that’s exactly the impression that comes from Armando Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield. Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell attempt to include as much of Dickens’ 800-plus-page novel as possible into a two-hour film, turning the sprawling epic into a zippy, fast-paced wry comedy, with undertones of melancholy. There’s a reason that the adjective “Dickensian” has come to stand in for Victorian-era poverty and misery, but while the title character of Iannucci’s film is often penniless, there’s very little misery in the film’s representation of the story.
Iannucci is best known for the caustic, foul-mouthed comedy of TV series The Thick of It and Veep and movies In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, but Personal History is much gentler, with very little of the pointed political satire of Iannucci’s best-known work. The most notable change comes in Iannucci’s use of colorblind casting, with a diverse set of actors playing the typically pasty white 19th-century English characters, starting with Dev Patel as the title character. The egalitarian onscreen representation falls in line with Dickens’ progressive views, and it’s presented entirely without comment, even when supposed blood relatives are clearly of very different ethnic heritage.
The focus instead remains on the story, which unfolds in a breathless rush that never really lets up. It’s David’s own story, beginning at his birth and taking him through numerous reversals of fortune, as he bounces around among relatives and employers, before finally finding stability in middle age as a writer. Iannucci presents the story as a live reading by David himself, delivered before a rapt audience. Scenes often fold into each other, with characters crossing paths from different time periods in David’s life, or peering from one location at events occurring miles away.
Like Greta Gerwig did in her adaptation of Little Women, Iannucci turns this classic story of a writer explicitly into the writer’s own work, as David sometimes revises or adjusts events as they’re happening. Given that the original novel was a fictionalized take on Dickens’ own upbringing, it makes sense to emphasize the personal mythmaking qualities of the story, and Patel gives David an open, earnest quality untempered by cynicism (a rare thing in Iannucci’s work). David is often mistreated by the people in his life, from the stepfather who beats him and sends him to toil in a factory, to the scheming Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), who undertakes to ruin David and his family financially, but he never loses his determination to make a better life for himself.
Although Iannucci trims the unwieldy set of characters a bit, Personal History is still full of colorful supporting performances, including Tilda Swinton as David’s strong-willed great aunt Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie as the charmingly addled Mr. Dick. The scenery is equally colorful, from the squalor of London slums to Betsey’s cluttered estate to the seashore where David’s beloved nanny Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) lives with her family in a house made from an overturned boat. The humor may be less harsh than in other Iannucci productions, but the dialogue is still clever and often quite funny.
The movie may lack the profound impact that Dickens’ novel has had on generations of readers, but it’s not a merely superficial treatment of the story, and Patel in particular brings heartfelt passion to his performance. For many, getting through a Dickens novel (or even a Dickens TV miniseries) can feel like a chore. Here, Iannucci makes it into a delight, and it’s hard to fault him for that.