“The Personal History of David Copperfield” — the umpteenth stab at visualizing Charles Dickens’s favourite novel — is so honest in its telling and so innocently buoyant in its presentation that I needed to do a double-take on the writing and directing credit. Armando Iannucci? The Scottish satirist and king of the blisteringly profane diatribe? Surely not.
Surely sure. A wordsmith of unusual drive and fluidity, Iannucci is perhaps one of the few writers undeterred by this doorstop of a story about one man’s bumpy journey from infancy to center age. Restructuring some story arcs and jettisoning others, Iannucci and his collaborator, Simon Blackwell, have created a souped-up, trimmed-down adaptation so fleet and entertaining that its cleverness doesn’t instantly register.
The film opens as theatrically because it means to proceed, with the grownup David (a smashing Dev Patel) introducing himself to a packed theater viewers earlier than stepping, fairly actually, into his previous to view his start. From there, a breathlessly swerving narrative sees David’s seesawing fortunes bounce him from countryside to seaside to depressing London manufacturing facility, and from one idiosyncratic household to a different: The merry, kindly Peggottys of their chaotic houseboat; the chronically indebted, perpetually optimistic Micawbers (led by the sensible Peter Capaldi), their cheer undiminished by the occasional night time on the streets.
Even within the gutter, although, Zac Nicholson’s photographs give off a magical sheen: This isn’t the grubby, gunk-filled London we usually envisage as Dickensian, teeming with urchins and top-hatted toffs. Accenting the fairy-tale side of our hero’s rise, Iannucci retains the social realism on simmer and Patel’s enthusiasm and optimism on a rolling boil. Dickens characters can typically pressure to detach from the web page, however Iannucci’s playfulness — a bit of slapstick right here, a silent-movie homage there — helps notice a toddler’s level of view or a disturbing reminiscence. These give the movie a breezy visible vigor that pushes it by way of the uncommon narrative doldrums.
And then there’s the solid, a multiethnic deal with whose variety is neither textual content nor subtext, however a reminder that the alabaster complexions of many a fancy dress drama shouldn’t be mistaken for historic accuracy. Potent turns from Jairaj Varsani, as a younger David; Rosalind Eleazar, because the unflappably loyal Agnes Wickfield; Benedict Wong as her cheerfully hammered father; and Nikki Amuka-Bird because the hilariously class-conscious mom of David’s boarding-school pal, Steerforth (a wonderfully languorous Aneurin Barnard), have a leveling impact that each modernizes and equalizes David’s world.
With its witty scene transitions and bolting tempo, “Copperfield” (Iannucci’s third function, after “In the Loop” in 2009 and “The Death of Stalin” in 2018) can be so distracting that its more subtle performances go underappreciated. No one can ignore Tilda Swinton’s deliciously eccentric, donkey-phobic Betsey Trotwood, but Hugh Laurie’s sweetly addled distress as her cousin, Mr. Dick, his head rattling with the words of a long-beheaded monarch, requires a kind of modest genius to pull off. Similarly, Ben Whishaw’s quietly slinking Uriah Heep, squinting from beneath pudding-bowl bangs, is a creepy joy.
“Are you worried humbleness is an infectious disease?,” he asks, when David instinctively recoils. Performances like these ground the film’s fancies in the very real stakes of pennilessness and abandonment; but “Copperfield” is, most of all, the story of a writer, and Iannucci stamps that theme on almost every scene. Whether using characters to poke sneakily at Dickens’s narrative weaknesses, or having David show Mr. Dick how to metaphorically publish his bothersome thoughts, Iannucci insists that putting words on paper is an act of self-determination. For David, furiously scribbling his collected memories, the choices he was never permitted to make in life can now be made on the page.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Rated PG for terrified donkeys and a terrifying stepfather. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Opening in select theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.