Film review: The new ‘David Copperfield’ is a witty reimagining

Dev Patel stars as David, In a brilliant piece of casting


Writer/director Armando Iannucci has a way of highlighting the humorous side of what are sometimes believed to be serious undertakings.

His 2017 film, “The Death of Stalin,” was a hilarious take on the murderous machinations following the death of the Russian dictator. And he created the political series “Veep” for HBO, where the title character is “boldly running for president, proudly standing for everything.”

Iannucci’s latest effort is Charles Dickens’ “The Personal Story of David Copperfield,” and it’s a reimagining of that classic tale — with a focus on the humor rather than serious social justice aspects of Victorian England. Iannucci doesn’t ignore the social justice issues; he just tackles them with glee.

The first thing you should know about this “Copperfield” is that the casting is delightfully color-blind. The first tip-off is that David is played by Dev Patel. He introduces the movie by standing on a stage, saying a few words, then melding into a scene of his birth, staring down into the cradle holding his infant self.

As most people know, David has a rather riotous life of wealth and poverty. He’s born into comfort, even though his father has died six months before his birth. His mother (Morfydd Clark) is rather dizzy and distant, but the young David finds comfort in their housekeeper, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper).

But when David’s mother remarries, the new stepfather has little patience with the boy and sends him away to live with Pegotty’s family, who live in an upside-down beached barge in Yarmouth. The rest of David’s young life is a tale of skipping around from boarding school to odd foster families to bottling factories and other Victorian oddities.

Along the way, David gets a glimpse of the struggling underclass, especially in the bottling factory and while living with the Micawber family, led by Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), who is always running from creditors and in need of a handout.

David finds temporary reprieve from London’s underside by ending up, for a while, in the care of his aunt (Tilda Swinton), who hates the stray donkeys who munch on her yard. She also has a lodger, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who has some mental issues but finds solace in David’s clever company.

But a recitation of the plot — and David’s eventual rise to successful writer — is in direct conflict with the upbeat spirt of “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” There’s something freeing about seeing characters played by Black women and Asian men in place of the traditional dowdy Masterpiece Theatre-style casting. And Patel makes a most excellent David, full of wit and energy and compassion.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is one of the few movies opening in theaters. In Austin, it’s playing at the AMC Barton Creek, the Regal Westgate and the Moviehouse Eatery.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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