TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ proves there’s still boundless life to find in Charles Dickens’ classic novel

Most of us were likely begrudgingly subjected to reading the work of Charles Dickens in our school years. And cinema sure has mined most of his bibliography since the dawn of the medium. His semi-autobiographical work David Copperfield has itself been adapted numerous times over the years, most notably MGM’s big-budget 1935 adaptation, which scored three Oscar noms including Best Picture. It begs the question of why offer up yet another incarnation of this classic tale.

Enter writer/director Armando Iannucci to serve up one of the year’s most delightful treats to make you forget all those stuffy classroom memories. Armed with Dickens’ breezily entertaining narrative and a ridiculously stacked and wonderfully colour-blind ensemble cast, The Personal History of David Copperfield moves at a cracking pace to consistently keep an audience engaged. Incredibly warm, often hilarious, and all sorts of riotous fun, Iannucci proves there’s still boundless life to find in this classic novel.

Echoing the novel’s first-person narrative style and creating a framing device for the film, The Personal History of David Copperfield begins with David Copperfield (a terrific Dev Patel) stepping onto a theatre stage to recount the story of his life. Quite literally appearing around him, David is transported back to his childhood home in Dover to watch as his widowed mother (Morfydd Clark) gives birth, with her faithful housekeeper Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and bossy sister-in-law Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) by her side.

Growing up with the adoring love of both his mother and housekeeper, young David (Jairaj Varsani) soon has his life turned upside down when his mother takes a cruel new husband Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd) who relentlessly victimises David with the assistance of his icy sister, Jane (a perfectly imposing Gwendoline Christie).

Tired of David getting in his way, Edward sends the youngster to briefly board with Mrs. Peggotty and her brother (Paul Whitehouse) in their overturned-boat-turned-house, overloaded with several other outcast children. While David is a gifted writer and artist, he crumbles out of fear when Edward demands he read aloud from a book for his amusement.

Deciding his stepson is in need of both life experience and an education, Edward ships David off to London where a life of working in a bottle-making factory awaits. Taking up boarding with the permanently-penniless Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), the now-adult David longs to return home to his mother. But when the Murdstones arrive to inform David his mother has died, he flees to the comfort of his Aunt Betsey and her farcically batty cousin Mr. Dick (a masterful Hugh Laurie) who take the orphan in.

Dotted along this narrative are a series of madcap adventures and mishaps, filled with a calamity of supporting characters to liven up the film including the braggartly endearing James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), a boarding school chum who quickly becomes David’s closest friend; the nasty Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, playing against type), a detestable worker at the school who’s not to be trusted; the giddy Dora Splenlow (Clark playing dual roles, which you likely won’t notice) who steals David’s heart; and Aunt Betsey’s alcoholic finance manager Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his beautiful daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), who longs for David to see her as more than just a pseudo-sister.

It’s somewhat of a miracle Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell manage to cram this much narrative into a running time of just two hours without it ever feeling too rushed. The film hums along with Iannucci’s typical cadence that’s expertly crafted with a series of intriguing visual techniques. A hilarious drunken night out that plays like a classic fast-speed silent film is a particular highlight, as is a sequence where a love-smitten David can’t help but daydreamingly see Dora’s dazzling blonde curls everywhere he looks including atop the dome of St Pauls’ Cathedral.

Every sequence bursts to life with stunning production design from Cristina Casali that juxtaposes the varying degrees of wealth of those David encounters, supplemented by the gorgeous period costume work of Suzie Harman and Robert Worley. Mark this one down for awards season contention in these categories, at the very least. Captured by the evocative cinematography of Zac Nicholson, The Private History of David Copperfield is a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

The screenplay is a cavalcade of comedic delights, including some absolutely golden one-liners (most delivered by Laurie) to elicit hefty laughter from an audience. Iannucci and Blackwell show deep respect for Dickens’ work while still reinvigorating his novel in their own modern ways. However, Dickens purists shouldn’t fret. The pair resist the urge to modernise the tale too heavily, but there’s a particular focus on class warfare and the notion of elitism that’s painfully relevant in any corner of the globe.

Despite the odds stacked against our protagonist, there’s still an inspiring message of hope to be found here. David’s voyage of self-discovery is loaded with misfortunes, but his steadfast determination to succeed is infectiously uplifting, and you can’t help but want to see our titular hero succeed. To be sure, the film sometimes paints a rose-coloured view of life, but it’s hard not be swept away by the film’s endless optimism that happy endings are still achievable.

In one of the year’s finest examples of an ensemble film, The Private History of David Copperfield finds every single member of the cast working at the top of their game. Their chemistry is electric and they’re all clearly having the time of their lives in this production. Leading the way is Patel, who is effortlessly charming and endlessly energetic in the titular role. The character runs the full gamut of emotions here, requiring the actor to display both boundless joy and devastating pain, which he handles with aplomb. In a role he likely never expected to play but was somehow clearly born to tackle, his colour-blind casting (thankfully, it’s never called out) is a stroke of genius. It’s no exaggeration to call this Patel’s finest work to date.

Frankly, one could write an entire piece praising the work of each of Patel’s supporting cast of dynamite characters. But the two that shine just a touch more are Swinton and Laurie, who combine to create a superb comedic duo. In a typically eccentric performance, Swinton is the perfect choice for the donkey-hating (yes, you read that correctly) Aunt Betsey, unleashing all the madcap mayhem the actress is so adept at displaying. In a career notable for villainous and cold turns, it’s a performance that’s far more loveable than anything she’s offered before.

Stealing every single moment he’s a part of, Laurie is an absolute riot as the slightly-mad Mr. Dick, whose obsession with King Charles I is ruining his life. With a penchant for blunt candour that’s both utterly hilarious and decidedly awkward, Laurie is handed the lion’s share of the film’s best dialogue, which he delivers with perfect wit and sarcasm. It’s an incredibly empathetic performance that resulted in huge applause from the Toronto Film Festival audience when Laurie’s name appeared in the closing credits. Someone, please start his Best Supporting Actor Oscar campaign immediately.

If there are any failings to be made of The Private History of David Copperfield, it’s centred on the love triangle involving David, Dora, and Agnes, which simply isn’t given enough focus to feel truly authentic. Despite his blissful daydreams of Dora, there’s little belief in David and Dora’s romance. Patel and Clark have the chemistry, but it’s never given enough time to truly flourish. Agnes’ unrequited devotions feel more like afterthoughts plonked in to add some extra spice to the mix, but it fizzles more than it fires, especially with the hasty way this side story is neatly wrapped up in the film’s conclusion.

But in a film with so much warmth and levity, you’ll be having too glorious a time to notice such minor faults. Full of razor-sharp dialogue delivered by an impeccable ensemble cast, The Private History of David Copperfield is an irresistible delight. Iannucci breathes new life into this well-worn tale, proving he really can do anything. Both wickedly funny and endearingly touching, this is one of the most enjoyable romps you’ll experience this awards season.

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Jairaj Varsani, Paul Whitehouse, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Welch, Benedict Wong
Director: Armando Iannucci
Producers: Kevin Loader, Armando Iannucci
Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
Cinematography: Zac Nicholson
Music: Christopher Willis
Production Design: Cristina Casali
Editing: Mick Audsley, Peter Lambert
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: TBC