If you've ever watched anything made by Armando Iannucci, you've probably got a good grasp of the filmmaker's dark sense of humor. All it takes is one episode of Veep or 30 minutes of The Death of Stalin to get you thinking, "Our world is a joke and everyone in it is deeply terrible," and that joke is almost always hilarious. Iannucci has made a career out of delightfully satirizing our broken existence, but he flips the script with his latest film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. It's not only the most joyous entry in Iannucci's catalog, it's one of the most hopeful films of the entire year.
Based on the book by Charles Dickens (not the life of the modern-day magician), The Personal History of David Copperfield follows the titular storyteller on a journey through his life. A grown-up David, played by Dev Patel, is the one actually telling his story, so you experience his memories rather than following his character step by step. That's a key distinction to make because David takes liberties with his tale and stops for touching asides that usually have no place in a linear narrative, but are deeply important to explaining the man he becomes.
David Copperfield's life is a strange journey, going from riches to poverty and back again, stopping to live with a horde of eccentric characters along the way. At various points, David lives with a fishing family inside an overturned boat, a lackluster musician who never pays his debts, an aunt with a disdain for donkeys, and quite a few others. It's a joy simply to watch David go from one crazy situation to another.
At the center of the entire film is this idea that everything you experience in life helps to shape who you become, but none of it gets to define you. No matter what life throws at David, he continues to grow and learn, a student open to learning from any teacher, regardless of where they may come from.
Like Dickens' book, the film works almost like a series of vignettes, though the connective tissue is a bit stronger. As David bounces between periods of his life, we get to spend time with different characters in different locations. It keeps everything feeling fresh throughout the two-hour run time, especially considering how charming and enjoyable most of these characters are.
Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie make an exceptional pairing, enhanced even further by the biting, quick-witted nature of Iannucci's writing style. Laurie has been a constant collaborator for the filmmaker, and their rapport works wonders for the character, Mr. Dick, who is easily the most hilarious supporter of the group.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the cast that isn't enjoyable. Gwendoline Christie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, and so many others are simply fantastic throughout. Iannucci and his team made the decision to ignore any kind of outward appearance when casting, allowing direct relatives to be played by people of different ethnicities, which works wonders in getting the very best people on-screen together. From top to bottom, it's hard to think of a cast that fits so well together.
The entire ensemble, and really the film itself, rides or dies with the talent of Patel, who delivers one of the most endearing performances of his young career. There's something so inherently likable about the passion David has for life, and that comes directly from the heart of Patel. He's impossibly charismatic and thoughtful in the role, making the downs of David's life even more affecting. What's really impressive, though, is the ease with which Patel captures your adoration. A drunken wave from the balcony of a theater is all it will take to make you a Patel fan for life, if you weren't already.
Veep, the project Iannucci is best known for, won endless awards for its dirty and twisted exploration of our fragile egos, and its ending is one of the most brilliantly infuriating in TV history, because it was genuine in its misery. It was clear through that series that Iannucci was a man with his finger on the pulse of who we are and where we're going. Our world today is much different, but Iannucci still has that innate ability to reflect what we hold inside. We have become a people begging for hope in the middle of a broken ecosystem, but here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield, showing us that the troubles of our lives don't have to define us, and that we get to dictate what the rest of the story looks like.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing in theaters.