Writer: Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell
Director: Armando Iannucci
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The London Film Festival likes to showcase big British movies at the opening or closing night and in recent years we have seen Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and last year the fantastic Widows from Steve McQueen. 2019’s Opening Night Gala is Armando Iannucci’s adaption of The Personal History of David Copperfield, taking Dickens’ sprawling 900-page novel set largely in gruesome 1840s London and Kent and creating a breezy episodic tale of a young man seeking identity and community to inform his development as a writer.
Young David Copperfield is born to a gentle widow who soon marries a stern second husband whereupon David is sent to work in a bottle factory. Treated disdainfully for years, David eventually walks to Dover in search of his wealthy aunt where his love of creative fiction and flights of imagination are fed by the people he meets. Launching from school into the world of work David falls in love with the boss’s daughter but as old friends and new enemies threaten his stability, David must support them all to find his own happy ending.
Anyone expecting Iannucci to have used Dickens as a platform for his own sharp political satire may be surprised to find that The Personal History of David Copperfield marks a departure from the writer and director’s previous style. There are plenty of keenly observed and ridiculous moments, but Iannucci’s film has more in common with conventional period drama – the swelling classical soundtrack, the delightfully sunny and lush countryside and a reverence for grand-looking buildings.
With considerable respect and love for the original novel, there is a feel of comic caper about the entire approach as young David grows to maturity and discovers his place in the world. The optimistic phrasing of the film, as Iannucci explained during the brief Q&A, is a deliberate counter to our dismal external state, a purposeful escape but he could have gone further in combining the period drama format with his own comic scepticism.
Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship (2016) gave a new edge to the genre, bringing an arch but brilliantly observed comedy of manners to the screen. Iannucci’s film tries the same but is more easily seduced by the glories of the format, and while the film runs on the social observation and wonderful nonsense of humanity so well depicted here, it lacks that skewering of artifice that could have set it apart.
As David, Dev Patel is a charismatic and engaging hero whose slightly haphazard charm makes him a delightful guide to his own biography. The emphasis throughout on writing (used through on-screen excerpts from the novel like chapter headings) seem to come entirely from Patel’s mind as he balances the storytelling elements with David’s real struggles, creating a happy-go-lucky dreamer who takes each knock and bounces back with energy.
There is much joy to be had from the surrounding cast and while Iannucci has conflated characters to give his prime actors more screen time, the comic performances of Peter Capaldi as the maudlin Mr Micawber and Hugh Laurie as the Charles I-loving and kite-flying Mr Dick are hugely enjoyable. The easy diversity among the rest of the cast is a lesson to the industry; Jairaj Varsani is a star as the feisty but determined young David, Rosalind Eleazar is a winning Agnes and there’s a fine turn from Benedict Wong as the wine-loving Mr Wickfield. Ben Whishaw adds the creep factor as the infamous Uriah Heep, although his too hasty climb from servant to business owner leaves little time to really appreciate his villainy.
Iannucci’s love of the book means that lots of characters and subplots are included which overload the film a little and have an almost chaotic quality at times as he jumps between the strands, it also means that the finely tuned characterisation of Tilda Swinton, Daisy May Cooper and Gwendoline Christie are all lost in the rush. Iannucci’s film is clearly a labour of love but you might just wish it was a little sharper.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October