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Review: A dickens of a ‘David Copperfield,’ with Dev Patel heading up a great ensemble cast

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 15, 2020

By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

If ever a match were made in cine-literary heaven, it would be Charles Dickens and Armando Iannucci, each a master of probing social criticism, slashing wit and floridly besotted love of language.

So the fact that Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a surpassingly lively and acutely observant flight of fancy doesn’t come as a shock. Still, this cheeky, decidedly postmodern reinterpretation of Dickens’ masterwork manages to surprise in myriad delightful ways. Iannucci captures the meaning and the music of the classic tale – about a young man defining and redefining himself through comfort and cruelty, penury and privilege – by way of a gifted and bracingly pluralistic cast. Jairaj Varsani lends winsome innocence to the title character as a youngster; once grown, the put-upon but reliably plucky David (or Davey, or Doady, or Trot, depending on who’s taking him under their wing) is played by Dev Patel with relaxed ease.

But despite the narrow focus of its title, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a supremely effective ensemble piece, stuffed to bursting with brilliant supporting performances by Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Rosalind Eleazar and Benedict Wong – pointedly race-neutral casting that, along with Iannucci’s occasional cinematic flourishes, helps the narrative to slip the bonds of dreary literalism and fussy textual fealty and come to life with sunny, vibrantly amusing brio.

Along the way, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell have made nips and tucks (purists will note that Barkis has unfortunately bitten the dust). But needs must in a sprawling story that, like Greta Gerwig’s similarly energetic take on “Little Women” last year, ultimately becomes an ode to writing as an art form and act of self-creation.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” opens in a jewel-box theater and unfolds in vignettes that are staged to resemble storybook illustrations. You could say it’s all too delicious for words except that words are the point as David listens to everyone he encounters, soaks up their rhythms and idiosyncratic humor and furiously scribbles their best stuff down for later use.

Thanks to the company of fine actors Iannucci has assembled, and to the director’s own command of the material, the cosmopolitan gaggle of urchins, eccentrics, sharpies and rounders who populate “The Personal History of David Copperfield” look right at home in Victorian London, but also can’t help but evoke the present day when the obstacles of class, caste and predatory capitalism stubbornly persist. Bold, playful and irrepressibly optimistic, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” perfectly manifests the spirit of the hero of its own story: Amid struggle and suffering, it digs for joy – and always manages to find it.

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