“The Personal History of David Copperfield” sees Jairaj Varsani play Copperfield as a youngster born into a life of Victorian comfort. His life takes a turn when his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) marries the sadistic Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) who beats David for the slightest of transgressions. When things come to a head at home David (now played by Dev Patel) is sent away to board with the down-on-his-luck Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and family and work as child labor at Murdstone’s bottle factory.
David takes steps to shape his destiny after he isn’t told of his mother’s death until after her funeral. Following an emotional scene at the factory, he sets out to find his wealthy aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her lodger, the kite-flying eccentric Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) who believes he is possessed by the spirit of King Charles the First. Aunty pays for David’s tony university education, where he confirms his love of language and begins making the detailed notes on the people he meets that will one day form the backbone of his debut book, “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery.”
It’s also there that he meets James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), a wealthy and witty student and obsequious law clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw). Both will have a major impact on David’s trajectory from pauper to gentleman and author.
Patel leads a diverse cast, jam packed with oddball characters, that maintains Dickens’s themes while giving the story a contemporary feel. Iannucci has compressed the 600-page book, boiling out the essence of Dickens’s condemnation of exploitation of the weak and comment on wealth and class as a measure of a person’s value. The result is uneven that sometimes feels like a series of vignettes but Iannucci mines a rich comedic vein that smoothes over the story’s fits and starts. Capaldi, Swinton and Laurie deliver broad performances but it is Patel who brings the humanity that balances everything out.
As David, Patel is at the center of the action and grounds some of the story’s more fanciful aspects with a deep humanity.
Iannucci is a Dickens fan and it shows. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a sparkling adaptation of the original story that uses wonderful dialogue and physical comedy to paint a heartfelt, serious and timely portrait of social anxiety and inequality.