Charles Dickens said, of what many consider to be both his masterpiece and at the same time the most autobiographical of his works, that it represented “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention”.
So the peripatetic journalist and scribbler would doubtless have approved of Armando Iannucci’s retelling of the story in a joyous and joyful series of postmodern arcs, riffs and curlicues that enchants and entrances. It is spellbinding and mesmerising from the start, though more of that later.
First, a word about diversity. A spectacular ensemble cast produces stellar performances, and Iannucci is colour- and race-blind, with Mr Wickfield played by Benedict Wong and daughter Agnes played with aplomb by black actress Rosalind Eleazar (Holby City, Deep Water, Howards End).
At a press conference to promote the 2019 London Film Festival, for which The Personal History Of David Copperfield was the curtain-raiser, Iannucci said he knowingly wished to create the diversity of Victorian London. “It was like Manhattan in the 1920s,” he said. “London then and London now was and is a global city. We wanted to make a city that the audience would recognise and the characters would recognise.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, young David (a very occasionally overly boisterous Dev Patel), is born to delicate widowed Morfydd Clark in a scene that sets out the po-mo aspirations of this offering by having the grown David present and observing. Nursemaid Peggotty, brilliantly brought to life by the sparkling comic actress Daisy May Cooper (This Country), inculcates a love of language in David, sketching his observations, with an honest West Country goodness that shines from her huge heart. When she remarries the brutish tyrant Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), his ghastly sister (Gwendoline Christie) moves in as housekeeper and the genial and affably chaotic regime David enjoyed under Peggotty soon changes into a reign of terror.
David is sent away to a number of places, a crumbling private school and, later, down on his luck, forced to work as a near-slave in the sadistic workhouse that is the Murdstones’ bottle factory in London. We are taken on a tour of the squalor of lower-class London, and we meet the endearing old crook Mr Micawber and his wife (a standout performance by Peter Capaldi, amply supported by Bronagh Gallager, a devoted chimera that stands as a leitmotif of incurable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds that see them in debtors’ prison when his nimble steps to stay one step ahead of the bailiffs finally becomes wrong-footed.
His salvation appears to have arrived when he presents himself at the glorious Kentish home of his aunt Betsey Trotwood, played with eccentric but loving humanity by Tilda Swinton – the memory of her thwacking donkeys from the meadow at the back of the house with a stick will endure long after the credits have rolled. And a word, too, for her somewhat deranged lodger Mr Dick. This sees Hugh Laurie pull back from the growling misanthrope that one associates with later incarnations such as House and reprise earlier affably buffoonish parts such as Bertie Wooster, and all the better for it.
The darker aspects of the novel are skated over or left out – Dora doesn’t die here – but it is part of the life-affirming take that Iannucci has weaved into this classic tale. And like a Shakespearean comedy, Iannucci follows the Bard’s rule that all threads must be tied up in a gloriously happy ending in which all triumph except the Malovolio of the piece, here the creepy and insidious Uriah Heep, a role so perfectly inhabited by Ben Whishaw that it is as though he has poured the swill of the personality into a mould that has been left to set.
Great supporting roles by Paul Whitehouse as Coachman Barkin and Aneurin Barnard as his charismatic but tragically flawed upper-class friend Steerforth round off this odyssey into the making of a writer that will leave you smiling long after you leave the cinema. Superb.