In theory, it might not seem like the most blissful marriage: the sharp-tongued, often foul-mouthed, satirical comedy of Armando Iannucci with Charles Dickens’ most personal and optimistic novel David Copperfield. But within minutes of this thrillingly realised adaptation, any assumptions are quietly kited away, and a once unusual idea unfolds into something strangely fitting.
We begin with David (Dev Patel) on stage, telling us about his beginning, as his widowed mother gives birth with devoted housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) by her side. David grows up surrounded by love and humour, keeping note of Peggotty’s many witticisms on scraps of paper as he starts to discover his own knack for crafting them. But as he soon finds out, life is never quite as smooth as one would hope, and when his mother takes a violent new husband, David is sent on an odyssey of sorts, thrown from one unlikely situation to the next, his words proving to be his saving grace time and again.
Choosing to follow up his rapturously received festival hit The Death of Stalin with an adaptation of a novel so well known, Iannucci tasks himself with refreshing rather then revising. From the outset, he employs some unexpected stylistic touches and adds racial diversity to his colour-blind cast – but stops short of anything that would drastically modernise the text. Instead, he finds a way of transposing his rhythm on to the source material, creating the sort of well-choreographed, well-timed group comedy that makes his narrative work so distinctive. It’s a deceptively delicate art of his, one that comes to life with sharp dialogue and canny direction. But it wouldn’t work without a cast of actors who complement each other’s performance styles so perfectly.
Patel, an actor who hasn’t always shown (or been given the chance to show) just how good he really is, flies here, with a charming central turn, and his infectious energy is matched by newcomer Jairaj Varsani as his younger self. Iannucci does pack the supporting cast with known quantities – including a wonderful Tilda Swinton as David’s donkey-hating aunt, a weaselly Ben Whishaw as his heavy cake-eating nemesis, and Hugh Laurie as an obsessive, mentally ill kite-lover – but unlike so many period adaptations he avoids over-stuffing it with stars. There’s an unusual amount of room for lesser-known actors to shine in key roles, such as an engaging Rosalind Eleazar as his slow-burning love interest, a hugely amusing Morfydd Clark as the air-headed object of his affection and Aneurin Barnard as his snobbish classmate. Throughout the film, the cast engage in so many wonderfully measured scenes of mayhem that the fun they’re clearly having radiates from the screen. At times, I half expected them to burst out laughing, so much of it feeling a mere frame away from an outtake.
While Iannucci avoids making any heavy-handed links between Victorian England and the current climate, there’s an unavoidable prescience in the story’s focus on class. The characters, looking up and looking down, find themselves consumed with assumptions that get gradually torn down by the film’s chaotic finale. I’d argue that the final act borders on excess, feeling rather rushed and scattered, but Iannucci pulls it back, and by the time the credits roll we’re left with an unashamedly positive end note. There’s been a dearth of successful big screen comedies in the past few years, with audiences rushing toward darker fare instead as a masochistic way of dealing with troubled times, but Iannucci’s joyous and crowd-pleasing tonic might well buck the trend. It’s a story that remains as witty and resilient as its main character and its charms, like David’s, remain impossible to resist.