Other than the waistcoats, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is not like any costume drama you’ve ever seen.
The loose adaptation of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece diverges from the PBS “Masterpiece” playbook by throwing out the stuffy admiration for the material and replacing it with a distinctly modern viewpoint. Led by Dev Patel in the title role, the color-conscious casting asks us to wonder how immigrants and people of color might have fared in the Victorian era. That could get dark, but the humor is contemporary and ironic, not a surprise when you consider the movie was written by “Veep” veterans Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell. (It’s family-friendly, which is surprising when you consider it’s by “Veep” vets.)
The characters tend toward shades of gray. In the novel, as poor David made his way from one abusive guardian to another, Dickens was mostly content to focus on his plucky young hero. But the movie is equally interested in the parental figures. Take the first of them, Betsey Trotwood, who is described as “a severe lady” and is made severely hilarious by Tilda Swinton. Initially, Mrs. Trotwood seems to be a cartoon villain (she even yells, “Get off my lawn!”) but Swinton develops a nuanced portrait of a woman whose unhappy life has been defined by limited options.
Throughout this “Copperfield,” there is an abundance of humanity. Iannucci, who directed, takes advantage of the episodic structure of Copperfield’s rise from rags to riches, laying out a relay race’s worth of supporting characters who are played by gifted actors such as Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Benedict Wong and Gwendoline Christie. A big part of the fun here is watching these talents zip into the movie, command the screen for a scene or two and then hand off the histrionic baton to the next British star.
Another pleasure is Patel, who was blown off the screen by a Mount Rushmore of British acting legends in the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies but is sincere and winning here. This “Copperfield” is told in flashbacks, and much like Greta Gerwig’s take on “Little Women,” it’s presented as a young writer using their own story as material for their work. When we meet him, adult David is speaking to a crowded theater, much like Dickens did on his lecture tours. Even in flashbacks where David is played by two younger actors, the adult David pops in to try to make sense of his memories.
Yes, there’s a meta quality to the story, but Iannucci handles it more breezily than, say Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) would. When David attempts an awkward profession of love to a ditzy woman we’re pretty sure he doesn’t love, she responds, “That’s very complicated but thank you,” and then disappears from the movie, insisting that he write her out of his narrative.
As he relates his story, is David remembering correctly? Is he a reliable narrator? Who knows? But he’s definitely a fleet, funny and warmhearted one.