Review: A new ‘David Copperfield’ shows Dickens’ story is as timely as ever

(Dean Rogers | courtesy of Searchlight Pictures) Dev Patel plays the title hero of "The Personal History of David Copperfield," directed by Armando Iannucci. The movie is scheduled to open in many U.S. theaters on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

For a filmmaker best known for lacerating satire, director Armando Iannucci manages something delightful in his newest movie, “The Personal History of David Copperfield”: He blows the cobwebs off of the classic Charles Dickens novel, bringing it to rambunctious life without sacrificing a jot of its Victorian sensibility.

There’s still a spirited wit at work in Iannucci’s and co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell’s script — something to be expected from the minds behind HBO’s “Veep” and its British predecessor, “The Thick of It.” But in this “David Copperfield,” there also are a warmth and hopefulness missing from Iannucci’s past movies, the political satires “In the Loop” and “The Death of Stalin.”

Starting on a stage in a 19th-century theater, much like one from which Dickens himself once read, the adult David Copperfield (played by Dev Patel) begins to tell the tale: “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these moments must show.”

Casting Patel — a London-born actor whose parents are of Indian descent and who has made his fame playing natives of India (including in “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Lion”) — is not a gimmick, or merely a bow to the theater trend of hiring actors of color for roles that used to be exclusive to white performers. In choosing Patel, Iannucci makes manifest David’s sense of otherness, giving a depth to David’s desire to find his way in the world. Iannucci also has picked one of the best young actors working today, and that should be enough.

The story zips through David’s boyhood, and happier times with his mother, Clara (Morfydd Clark) — until Mom, a widow since before David’s birth, marries the brutal Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd). Murdstone and his nasty sister, Jane (Gwendoline Christie), ship David off, first with Clara’s housekeeper, Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), then to a torturous boarding school, and later as a slave laborer in Murdstone’s factory in London. It’s there that David meets Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), a landlord whose many schemes can’t keep him from landing in debtors prison.

[Read more: With ‘David Copperfield,’ a director and star find the humor and modern voice of Charles Dickens]

David eventually finds his way back to family — specifically, his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Betsey introduces David to more fascinating characters, including the addled scholar Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), Betsey’s sherry-guzzling attorney Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), his smart and sensible daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and Wickfield’s toadying clerk, Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw). David jots down everything he remembers from the people he encounters, a collection of scraps and memories that become important later in the story.

Iannucci has assembled an incredible ensemble cast. Some are actors he’s worked with before, like Capaldi on “In the Loop” or Laurie on the HBO sci-fi sitcom “Avenue 5.” Others are revelations, like Eleazar in a strong movie debut, or Clark, who has an important double role. Iannucci gives them all moments to generate a laugh or provoke a tear, while still showcasing Patel’s moving central performance.

The story moves at breakneck pace, cramming a lot of Dickens’ plot and ideas into two hours. But nothing ever feels rushed as Iannucci gives weight not only to his characters’ emotions but also the issues of identity and class divisions that troubled Dickens then as much as they vex us now. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is, indeed, personal — and, because of it, the movie draws us into David’s, and Dickens’, world and cajoles us into paying our full attention.


‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A fast-paced, comical and emotionally stirring rendition of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, enriched by Dev Patel’s full-bodied performance in the title role.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, Aug. 28.

Rated • PG for thematic material and brief violence.

Running time • 119 minutes.