Armando Iannucci has a talent for creating cutting depictions of our elected officials. In the HBO series Veep, he observed and reflected back to us our hierarchical government, run by vacuous sycophants and metastatic cynics unified only by their solipsism and mendacity. Though fictional, Veep — along with its predecessor and British counterpart, The Thick of It (2005) — led viewers to believe they had an insider’s guide to all the devil’s bargains being made by political functionaries. After leaving Veep to write and direct an even bleaker vision of politics in The Death of Stalin (2017), Iannucci turned his attention to Charles Dickens.
Until now, Iannucci’s gift appeared to be zeroing in on the moral decay of contemporary society — with lashings of curse words and heaps of insults to pepper the mix. But he’s not the first filmmaker who comes to mind for an adaptation of a picaresque novel published in 1850. The Personal History of David Copperfield makes it clear that the director’s greatest strength is working with a brilliant ensemble of actors.
Although Dev Patel stars as the titular David Copperfield, the Slumdog Millionaire actor shares the screen with a dozen other supporting characters. They accompany him on his life’s journey from orphaned child to factory worker and upwards out of his initial misfortune. Copperfield is a highly populated, busily cheerful and cheering movie. In this role, Patel is relaxed, unselfconscious and enjoying himself. The level of joy he expresses at times is contagious. Everyone in the cast looks happy to be a participant. Iannucci has exacted perfect comic timing from all the actors and then arranged the performances lovingly together in the edit room with an elegant efficiency. No one comes across as outsized or shrill.
The palette is layered with as many colors as Wes Anderson tends to jam into his frames. When David’s loving housekeeper, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), travels to the coast with him, they arrive at a beached boat that’s been decorated in the style of some child’s technicolor fantasy. Shot against ocean waves and ancient cliffs, the landscape is a riot of natural splendor. Everyone in this seaside scene is liberated by the setting.
When David temporarily boards at Mr. Micawber’s (Peter Capaldi) London flat, the entryway is a solid pastel from floor to ceiling. Micawber is famously stretched for cash, but even his humble dwelling is awash with color. The drawing room of Great Aunt Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) makes a startling impression. Painted in a gorgeous shade of cerulean, the walls match Swinton’s eyes. It’s painful to watch David leave the house behind, and that room in particular, to continue his education. Trotwood’s house is the first home he’s known since he was orphaned by his mother. Even his aunt’s lawn, troubled as it is by the presence of unwanted donkeys, lights up the screen with a vast expanse of electric green.
Iannucci keeps the 170 year-old story moving forward briskly, keeping pace with the likes of Baz Luhrmann. Yet Copperfield never feels that rushed. The director pauses when he needs an emotion or a reaction to register. He moves the camera as if it were choreographed in an impeccably synchronized dance with the actors. They know exactly when to dart in and out of the frame.
Only Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, released earlier this year, rivals Copperfield as a period adaptation that doesn’t feel stilted or antiquated. De Wilde might have the advantage when it comes to more striking costume designs but both films are spiritually buoyant. Copperfield also proves that hiring a diverse cast of actors doesn’t feel forced when the right person is chosen for the right role. What’s most surprising though about the film is that the characteristically caustic Iannucci not only tempers Dickens’ sentimentality; he also warms the material up and makes it welcoming.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing at the Regal Santa Cruz.