Intrigued by the title? I was too, particularly since 2020 marks the 150th year since the death of Charles Dickens, but it’s certainly not the semi-autobiographical tale that I remember.
Charles Dickens was the first international literary celebrity, perhaps because his novels demonstrated remarkable empathy for downtrodden people, introducing a great range of captivating characters.
Scottish director Armando Iannucci’s revisionist version begins in 1850 in a London theater, where David Copperfield (Dev Patel) addresses the audience, speculating on whether he’ll turn out to be the hero of his own life.
In a flashback, there’s young David (Jairaj Varsani) enduring a difficult Victorian England childhood since – according to his imperious Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) – he was supposed to be a girl. Indeed, his perfidious schoolmate, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), calls him “Daisy.” Yet David is adored and comforted by the housekeeper, Peggotty (Daisy Mae Cooper).
After his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) marries mean Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), David is promptly dispatched to work in Murdstone’s London factory.
When David bolts, his adventures begin and everywhere he travels, the resilient, now-adult David (Dev Patel) discovers revealing picaresque characters to populate the book he someday hopes to write.
There’s Aunt Betsey’s lodger, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who is obsessed by the severing of the head of King Charles II and homeless Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), optimistically noting: “We do primarily exist alfresco. Every meal is a picnic!”
Primary among the scheming nasties is the unctuous, patronizing legal clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
Working with screenwriter Simon Blackwell (HBO’s “Succession”), Iannucci (HBO’s “Veep” & “The Death of Stalin”) wisely casts innately likable Dev Patel, the London-born star of “Slumdog Millionaire,” as the central, coming-of-age character.
Throughout the film, Iannucci indulges in diverse, color-blind casting, along with magical realism, lending an aura of incredulity to Dickens’ episodic mixture of fact and fantasy.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a scrappy, stylized 6, a memorial celebration of loss and love.