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‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ serves Dickens with all the fixins

Multicultural cast, clever devices maximize the novel’s entertainment value

Dev Patel plays the title character in “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”
Searchlight Pictures

Stylized period-piece pics are all the fashion these days, from “The Favourite” to “Emma” to “Radioactive” to “Tesla” to the gloriously creative and multiculturally cast “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” in which director/co-writer Armando Iannucci (creator of HBO’s “Veep”) transforms Charles Dickens’ masterful but often dour and cumbersome 624-page Victorian novel into a brilliant piece of entertainment that often plays like “Alice in Wonderland” as interpreted by Monty Python.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is actually faithful in its adaptation of the main characters and major plot developments in the novel, with the title character (played by Dev Patel in another in a long line of strong performances) narrating his own story, which is rendered with the help of visually innovative transitional devices, e.g., green-screen style backdrops, cleverly conceived graphics and, at one, point, a giant hand reaching right into a scene to scramble things. (Kudos to cinematographer Zac Nicholson for infusing the film with beautiful and memorable visuals.)

In early flashback sequences featuring a delightful Jairaj Varsani as young David Copperfield, we meet many of the adults who will become seminal figures (for better or worse) in David’s life for years to come, including his cruel stepfather, Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), Edward’s horrible sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie), the warm and wonderful if daffy housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and David’s fantastically eccentric Great Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton), who has had such horrible experiences with men and boys throughout her life that she flies into a fit of madness when young David is born. Another MALE! God forbid!

Although young David endures hardship and poverty through much of his life, telling us, “I have been more miserable than I thought anybody could believe,” the tone remains relatively light even in the darkest of scenes, e.g., when the loathsome Edward Murdstone drags the boy upstairs for a beating and a slapstick physical bit ensues. But there’s room inside the comedy for some genuinely moving sequences, as when David learns his mother has died and the funeral already took place without his knowledge, and he nearly destroys the bottling factory where he’s been toiling in misery.

As a young man, David lives with a variety of offbeat hosts, who call him by different names in a running joke straight out of the novel. He’s “Davy,” “Daisy,” “Trotwood,” “Doady,” etc., etc., though he finally asserts himself by proclaiming, “I am David Copperfield!” During David’s time at the country estate of Aunt Betsey, who is obsessed with keeping donkeys off her property, he meets and becomes great friends with Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie in perhaps his most charming performance ever), a childlike figure who loves to fly kites and believes the thoughts of the beheaded King Charles are now occupying his brain. He’s also introduced to the lawyer and financier Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), who is always looking for an excuse to have a tipple, and Mr. Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar in a winning turn), who is clearly smitten with David and willing to stand by his side as confidante and friend until the daft lad wakes up and realizes that in true romantic comedy fashion, the love of his life has been right there all along…

Hugh Laurie (left) plays the childlike Mr. Dick, who befriends David (Dev Patel) during a stay with his Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton).
AP Photos

Ben Whishaw is suitably creepy as the unctuous Uriah Heep, the scheming clerk who tries to destroy David and his family. Peter Capaldi steals every scene he’s in as the tragi-comic character of Mr. Micawber, who puts a cheerful spin on his ever-dire circumstances. (When David spots Mr. Micawber living on the streets of London, Micawber says it’s quite the grand adventure before admitting: “We do primarily exist al fresco.”) The only dud in the proceedings is David’s first wife Dora (Morfydd Clark), who is harmless but quite dim and insufferable, and gives us no reason to believe David would fall head over heels for her. (Even Dora doesn’t get it. She urges David to write her out of the personal history he’s been keeping, as she has no real place in it.)

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is filled with clever if obvious commentary on institutionalized class snobbery. There’s some heavy stuff about mental illness here and there, most notably in the storyline involving the seemingly golden boy James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who becomes despised for good reason but hates himself more than anyone else possibly could. Mostly, though, the tone remains warm and hopeful. This is one of the most entertaining movies of 2020.