With ‘David Copperfield,’ a director and star find the humor and modern voice of Charles Dickens

(Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures) Director Armando Iannucci, left, on the set of "The Personal History of David Copperfield," talking to actors Peter Capaldi, center, as Micawber, and Dev Patel as David Copperfield. The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Aug. 28, 2020.

The movies haven’t always been good to Charles Dickens.

“There’s a lot more to him than has been conveyed in adaptations,” said Armando Iannucci, the satire-adept creator of HBO’s “Veep” and director of “The Death of Stalin” and “In the Loop.” “We have this image of him as a long-winded Victorian novelist who writes about mud and fog and death. In fact, he’s really very, very funny.”

Iannucci plumbs a Dickens classic for his humorous possibilities in “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” which opens in theaters across the United States on Friday. It’s one of the first movies to get a theatrical run since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of public spaces, including theaters, back in March.

For those whose memories of reading Dickens in high school are a bit spotty, a refresher: “David Copperfield” — serialized in 1849 and 1850, and published as a book in 1850 — tells the story of its title character, who is also the narrator. David, whose father died before his birth, lives his first seven years with his mother, until she remarries the heartless factory owner, Mr. Murdstone. David is then sent to live in a variety of situations, including in an overturned boat in Yarmouth and a brutal boarding school, and meets an array of fascinating characters.

[Read more: Review: A new ‘David Copperfield’ shows Dickens’ story is as timely as ever]

The people who cross David’s path include: the fast-talking and perpetually debt-ridden Mr. Micawber; David’s eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood; his aunt’s addled boarder, Mr. Dick; his aunt’s alcoholic lawyer, Mr. Wickfield, and his sensible daughter, Agnes; and Mr. Wickfield’s simpering clerk, Uriah Heep.

Iannucci, speaking recently in a videoconference with reporters, said that in rereading the book, “I was struck by how modern it was.”

The book carries, he said, “the themes of identity and anxiety, social anxiety, status anxiety, poverty and wealth existing side by side, debt, housing conditions, mental illness — with Mr. Dick — treated very honestly. … And also the celebration of writing, the celebration of playfulness and jokes, and imagery and characters and narrative. It’s just rejoicing in storytelling. It just sung to me.”

Dev Patel, who plays Copperfield in the film, acknowledged that he had never read the book as a student. When his agent told him about the movie, Patel said, “I was an idiot. I thought it was a movie about David Copperfield, the magician.”

Reading the script, and contemplating the chance to work with Iannucci, sold Patel on the project. “As a role, there’s a full meal there,” Patel said. “There’s tragedy, and there are moments of real humor and euphoria.”

In a traditional Dickens adaptation, Patel likely would not have been considered for the role, because he’s not white. Patel’s parents were born in Kenya and are of Indian ancestry. The 30-year-old Patel was born in London, and in his best-known roles — in “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Lion” and “Hotel Mumbai” — he has played characters born in India.

David isn’t the only character in “David Copperfield” for which Iannucci cast an actor of color. Chinese British actor Benedict Wong (“Doctor Strange”) plays the sherry-soaked Mr. Wickfield. Rosalind Eleazar, who is Black, makes her movie debut as Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes. And Nikki Amuka-Bird, born in Nigeria, plays the imperious Mrs. Steerforth, whose son James befriends David in boarding school.

They mingle with other familiar performers: Tilda Swinton as Aunt Betsey; Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick; Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber; Morfydd Clark as both David’s mother and the dotty Dora Spenlow; and Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep.

That expansive view of casting, Iannucci said, is common in live theater. (Think of “Hamilton,” in which the rebels are played by actors of color, and the king and his supporters are played by white performers.)

“Somehow, film feels it should be more literal for some reason,” Iannucci said. “But because it’s such a playful form, it just felt very natural, really,” to cast actors of color.

“It’s a value-add to the story,” Patel said. “It can sometimes make the threads of the story more potent. … It made it more representative of a Britain that I grew up in. [It creates] the opportunity for another young child not to miss out on this amazing tale, because now they can really find a face that they relate to on the screen.”

Such casting is even more fitting for a Dickens story, Patel said, because “Charles Dickens himself was kind of the writer for the everyman. He would go out on stage — it was like going to watch a movie — and read big chunks of his book. It was meant for the masses.”

Dickens, Iannucci said, “was a mass entertainer [and] the most famous writer in the world at the age of 24 or 25.” (He was 25 when he started serializing his second novel, “Oliver Twist.” He was 38 when “David Copperfield” was published.)

What makes Dickens appropriate for a current audience, Iannucci said, is that “he was aware of his big popular audience, and yet not afraid to use that massive stage he was on to talk about things that were uncomfortable” — topics like factory labor, violent treatment of children, injustice and poverty. “And yet, [he kept] it very rooted in reality, and in intimate characterization — and also to celebrate life and community.”