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Like Masterpiece Theatre by way of Rocketman, director Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is largely freed from usual genre formalities, indulgent of idiosyncrasies and, most of all, a tale whose merits linger even as its distinctive charms recede.
As pure of heart as previous projects like In the Loop or VEEP were profane, Copperfield (opening theatrically on Friday) represents a definitive directorial 180 for Iannucci, the Scottish-Italian satirist best known for political savagery. Not lost, though, is Iannucci’s ardor for rapid-fire dialogue — most often applied here to the barrage of bad news that befalls David Copperfield throughout his life — and black humor here rooted in bleak harbingers of mortality and loneliness. As a canonical classic, Charles Dickens’ novel encompasses both a formative bildungsroman and authorial musings on the form and function of creativity and memory in storytelling. Most adaptations embrace an expansive miniseries length. Alongside longtime co-writing collaborator Simon Blackwell, Iannucci collapses this sprawling saga into a tight two hours — hurtling through it at the pace of world’s-fastest-man Berthold from Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Their approach may prove tough for those plopping down with preconceived notions that every last incident must be incorporated. Then again, such a perspective would be overly prescriptive for a framework that Iannucci — in the film’s finest moments — presents as proscenium for a contemporary parable. Here, David Copperfield is portrayed by Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire), a British-born actor of Indian descent. The inherent commentary would be ingrained here even if Iannucci and Blackwell didn’t latch onto it. Thankfully, they do, at least in the earliest days of David’s persecutions at the hands of his cruel stepfather, Edward Murdstone. Their acuity strikes a sweet spot between Gilliam’s passive-aggressive sense of playfulness and oppression and the boisterous whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie).
Indeed, it appears Iannucci’s least externally enraged film could turn out to be his most internally irate — powered by profligate lengths to which the powerful go to persecute the poor and people of color. The film’s commendable colorblind casting wisely extends into no-big-deal universality, with the arrival of hybrid-ethnic British performers like Benedict Wong (Chinese), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Nigerian) and Rosalind Eleazar (Ghanaian) alongside Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Ben Whishaw (who nearly skulls away with the entire enterprise doing the legendarily obsequious and duplicitous Uriah Heep with a Lloyd Christmas haircut).
“The higher the words go, the clearer my mind become,” says Laurie’s Mr. Dick as he and David hoist a kite constructed from paper scrawls and scribbles that have escaped Mr. Dick’s frazzled psyche. The same could be said for the early lucidity and buoyancy of Copperfield, Iannucci and Blackwell freeing themselves from the fusty trappings of tradition. But there’s a slight nagging feeling that they don’t want to futz with it too much, and that takes over in a far more genteel second hour. Here, the goings-on become somewhat Gump-ified, rooting itself in a been-there, done-that flood of Dickensian tragedy (with the exception of a peppy moment featuring punched faces).
As with The Death of Stalin, Iannucci and company still haven’t quite figured out how to move some truly moving melancholy into their milieu. Hey, at least they’re trying something different than the sycophantic slew of endless Emmas and perpetual Pride & Prejudices. Their Copperfield ultimately constitutes a slight swing-and-a-miss, but one that leaves a refreshing cool breeze in its wake.