TITULAR HERO: Dev Patel plays David Copperfield in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

  • Comedy-drama; Cert PG, contains violence; 1hr 59mins
  • Starring: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Sophie McShera, Gwendoline Christie, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard and Anna Maxwell Martin
  • Director: Armando Iannucci

THE best adaptations of our much-loved stories are those that manage to both show respect to the original material, and, at the same time, reimagine them entirely.

I had never previously considered Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield to be a comedy.

Most adaptations focus on the doom, gloom and hardships of an 18th century English childhood.

However, Scottish-Italian writer-director Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Death of Stalin) has leaned heavily on the wit and humorous observances in Dickens’ work.

Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Lion) has shown his potential to play the heartwinning titular everyman hero in every film he has starred in to date.

He is amply supported by some of England’s acting elite, who have all put on their funny pants for the occasion.

Tilda Swinton seems born to be the intemperate Betsey Trotwood, and Hugh Laurie, likewise, is wonderful as the obsessive and distracted Mr Dick.

Peter Capaldi swims against the tide of his previous grumpy roles as the eternally optimistic Mr Micawber and the wonderful Bronagh Gallagher (The Commitments) is his long-suffering but faithful wife.

Best of all is Ben Whishaw as creepy villain Uriah Heep.
Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie and Spy’s Darren Boyd are delightful as the frightful Murdstones.

The story is one that is tricky to squeeze into a feature film, being better suited to a serial format.

Iannucci manages this by squeezing a few episodes of Copperfield’s life together. Mr Creakle’s boarding school is done away with. The harsh headmaster, instead, becoming the boss of the bottle factory, which featured later in the book. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrel’s Victor McGuire gives him a sinister Ronnie Kray-style rasp.

While it’s terrific to see this story being given a comedic turn, the film does stray dangerously toward slapstick pantomime humour at times. But it beats the stuffy grimness of previous adaptations.

8/10

diane.mccarthy@thebeacon.co.nz