The Personal History of David Copperfield gets the Veep treatment via satirist filmmaker Armando Iannucci

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Picture: Supplied
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Picture: Supplied

The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG)

4 stars

Charles Dickens had his finger on the pulse not only of his age, but apparently ours too.

While crafting his serialised story, later published as the novel David Copperfield, Dickens wanted to highlight the sorry state of child labour, inequity between the sexes especially in marriage, the callous exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, the class divide, debt and social acceptance.

It's rather sad that these themes are still so contemporary 180 years after publication

Scottish satirist and filmmaker Armando Iannucci might not be the obvious choice for an adaptation of such a BBC staple as Dickens, but being responsible for the biting satire of the British political series The Thick of It and its American cousin Veep, his content is a perfect match.

In Iannucci's colourful adaptation, David Copperfield (played at age six by Ranveer Jaiswal and as a teen and young man by Dev Patel) lives an idyllic life with his widowed mother and housekeeper Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper).

When a new stepfather Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and his cold sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) move in, David first is sent off to stay with Peggotty's family on the beaches of Dover, an idyllic time in David's life.

After clashing with Murdstone, he sends David to work in one of his London businesses, a wine merchant, and to board with the cunning Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi).

David later runs away to the home of his eccentric aunt (Tilda Swinton) and her companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), who adopt David and enrol him in an academy for a proper education.

David's later adventures include proposing to the charming and rather silly Dora (Morfydd Clark), and trying to help win back his aunt's fortune stolen by the conniving class-jumping Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).

That's only a fragment of the plot that Iannucci considerably cut down from Dicken's enormous novel.

Charles Dickens said the novel was his favourite, with echoes of his own life amongst its narrative, and the film begins much as Dickens spent his later life, with an older David Copperfield (Patel) on a stage, presenting tales of his life to a theatre of paying listeners.

The backdrop falls away and we are in the young David's story, and Iannucci uses a number of such theatrical flourishes through the film, reminding us that these stories are just fragments of performances across a greater life.

In one scene, a hand descends from the ceiling and moves the characters about, which all has a very Terry Gilliam feel to it.

Sometimes filmmakers stumble accidentally into a zeitgeist that captures the spirit of the age they're released into, and Immando Iannucci's colour-blind casting preempts the current conversation across the entertainment industry regarding caucasian actors being chosen over their more qualified or culturally appropriate peers.

In an interview, he has said that he simply chose the absolute best actor for each role, regardless of race or sex, and the casting is absolutely perfect.

In fact, London in Dicken's era wasn't the pale Anglo-fest that decades BBC adaptions have made us believe.

Dev Patel, particularly, is all pathos and searching as the older David. He is all of us, unsure of his place in the world, wanting acceptance, suffering terribly from impostor syndrome.

David is all of us, unsure of his place in the world, wanting acceptance, suffering terribly from impostor syndrome.

Again, such contemporary content in a 180-year-old character.

The film is consistently funny throughout thanks to some wonderful performances, very expected from the likes of Hugh Laurie who is in peak form as Mr Dick, a man who channels the thoughts of the long-dead King George I, but also from Tilda Swinton as his equally eccentric and awkward partner.

Peter Capaldi is an Iannucci favourite, and after loving his Dr Who recently, it is nice to see him take on another conniving loveable eccentric who enjoys murdering a musical instrument.

If period drama leaves you cold, you might not give this film a go, but you'd be missing out.

By the way, the overly long title of this film doesn't even come close to Mr Dicken's original title, actually called The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery.

This story It's Dickens, but not as we know it first appeared on The Canberra Times.