The Personal History of David Copperfield
2nd October 2019 7.45pm at Embankment Garden Cinema
3rd October 2019 2.20pm at Embankment Garden Cinema
5th October 2019 12.30pm at empire
Watching the latest film from Armando Iannucci feels a little like being pulled into a warm hug when you’re expecting a firm handshake. He still seals the deal like a seasoned salesman, but unlike his normal pitch of barbed satire, this time the filmmaker offers up an altogether softer, cosier experience.
Though the director’s last characteristically keen-eyed feature, The Death of Stalin, teetered precariously on the tightrope between comedy and tragedy, it also kept us at arm’s length from its caustic characters. The Personal History of David Copperfield, on the other hand, offers a more intimate form of storytelling, beckoning back some of Charles Dickens’s beloved characters courtesy of a sharp screenplay and a stunning cast. As our titular hero (Dev Patel) takes us through his past, we meet with a wonderfully eccentric bunch of acquaintances, from the kindly Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), to the unctuous Uriah Heap (Ben Whishaw), from the formidable Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) to the tormented Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), from stone-hearted Jane Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) to the shallow-pocketed Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi). It’s a tale of rags to riches – and back again.
The framing of the story is fun and fantastical, unfolding as if the scenes are being freshly formed in the mind of the author, woven from threads of memory. Patel is our worthy narrator, bright-eyed and intense, guiding us through with infectious charisma. The playful way in which the actor inserts himself into his character’s own childhood draws attention to the artifice whilst keeping us in thrall. Co-written by long-time collaborator Simon Blackwell (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep), the screenplay contains all the carefully crafted wit we’ve come to expect, but the edges have been filed down in a departure from the abusive and abrasive Malcolm Tucker-style tirades for which the partnership are known. There is more exploration into physical comedy, from a silent movie pastiche to some well-observed farcical encounters with money lenders and bailiffs.
And yet Capaldi once again works magic with every word, scrounging every ounce of humour from his screen time, while Swinton is magnificently mad, literally kicking donkeys off her lawn with trademark timing. Whishaw is yet another delight, his manner repellent, the absolute antithesis of the Paddington charm. But it is Hugh Laurie’s performance which is the most memorable, his delicate portrayal unearthing the tragedy of mental illness but also the joy that can be awoken when the clouds are lifted even momentarily.
Indeed, though it is set visually in the streets of Victorian London, this film is as progressive today as Dickens was in his era; the multicultural metropolis it sketches out draws parallels with the current bustling capital and illuminates the contemporary resonance of poverty and homelessness. The Personal History of David Copperfield dives down into depression and depravity, and yet the human spirit ultimately triumphs, resulting in a surprisingly optimistic picture from the king of cynical satire.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is released nationwide on 10th January 2019.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for The Personal History of David Copperfield here: