I’m a sucker for Charles Dickens, and I must confess I came to him through movies. It was a showing of the 1935 David Copperfield that inspired me to read the source novel when I was a boy; then I became a Dickens buff. I am also predisposed to like anything devised by Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin.
Blending the sharp edge of Iannucci’s satire with Dickens’ broad-ranging social commentary might seem an odd mélange, but there is much to enjoy in this unconventional adaptation. By casting Dev Patel in the leading role and ignoring skin color and ethnicity, Iannucci is packing a 19th century message in a 21st century bottle. Does it make sense that Asian, Indian, and English actors coexist in this ensemble? It does because the film tells us it is so. Whether this bold stroke will become more commonplace is an open question.
When producer David O. Selznick supervised the 1935 movie at MGM he said it was less important to be faithful to the sprawling novel than it was to give the illusion of being faithful. He was right. There are many vignettes in that film that aren’t reproduced in the screenplay by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell and frankly, I miss them. Peter Capaldi, who made a lasting impression in Iannucci’s British TV series The Thick of It and its offshoot In the Loop, is an endearingly cockeyed Mr. Micawber here. I just wish we got to spend more time with him. (In fairness, Dickens’ books almost always began in serialized form, which accounts for their extreme length—a challenge for any screenwriter.)
Hugh Laurie is an inspired choice to play the lightheaded Mr. Dick, and Tilda Swinton perfectly captures the fussiness of Aunt Betsey. Ben Whishaw is ideal as the unctuous Uriah Heep and the list goes on. Patel is sort of the straight-man in the midst of all these colorful scene-stealers but he strikes just the right note of earnestness.
To Dickens purists this contemporary view of David Copperfield may be a bit too radical, but I was certainly entertained. It suffers only in comparison to a beloved movie that swept me off my feet when I was an adolescent.