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The Personal History of David Copperfield

"It zings and it sings"

★★★★★ - STUFF 

- Armando Iannucci's five-star Dickens - 

Charles Dickens was happy to tell the world that his eighth novel – David Copperfield – was his own favourite.

And, fair enough too, I guess. For all the genre defining prowess of Great Expectations et al, it is David Copperfield that can still rouse a genuine laugh out of a jaded, 21st century crowd. And rousing a laugh is something director and screenwriter Armando Iannucci understands and respects more than most.

Iannucci's first claim to fame was as co-creator, with actor Steve Coogan, of the superficially detestable Alan Partridge, who has flitted through British satire and comedy for most of the last three decades. Iannucci also created the blistering political satire The Thick of ItVeep – and in 2017 he somehow turned the political machinations that might have followed The Death of Stalin into one of the most entertaining and funniest films of the year.

Iannucci is in love with the language, with wordplay, with ironic asides, with his characters' own delusions about who they are and the ways in which a well written gag can cascade from one scene into the next. So let him loose on Dickens' comic masterpiece, and a good time is pretty much guaranteed. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield is exactly the film you were hoping for if you are already a fan of the book, or of Iannucci. It is as respectful of the source material as any adaptation can be, even as it is setting its own rambunctious path through the twists and turns of our hero's early life.

Copperfield is a well-meaning, kind-hearted, naive, clever, endlessly inquisitive and curious young man. He progresses from family to school and into the world, wearing only a wide-eyed delight in his own surroundings and the existence of nearly everyone around him, to protect him from the predations of the few he meets who mean him ill. Of whom Uriah Heep is the most well-remembered. 

Just as the young Dickens did, Copperfield moves up and down the social strata, learning there are angels and bastards from the lowest to the highest, before he eventually puts what he has learned on the page, and finds fame and fortune as a writer.

Iannucci gets all of this on the screen, somehow knocking a 600-page novel into a two-hour running time, while leaving the ngākau and the wairua of the story intact. This David Copperfield is a stunning piece of writing. It zings and it sings, every bit as in love with its tale and its characters as Dickens was.

In the leads, Dev Patel is pretty much perfect as Copperfield. The London-born Patel brings all the soulfulness, innocence and steel he brought to Slumdog Millionaire and Lion to the role. Likewise, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Benedict Wong as Wickfield, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw as the loathsome Heep.

Iannucci's decision to ignore the colour of his actor's skin and simply cast exactly the right person for each role is an act of overdue commonsense. More please.

On the big screen for the first time in 50 years, this Copperfield glows and hums like a thing well made. If it sounds like something you want to see, I reckon you'll enjoy it just as much as I did.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF 

The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing at Light House Cinema! 

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