Though it’s been done a heap of times for television – and a couple of those adaptations have had big-screen releases in some territories – Armando Iannucci’s brisk, if not radical version of Charles Dickens’ novel is the first purely cinema Copperfield since the 1935 Hollywood version. It’s easy to see why other Dickens works (A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist) have been done over and over but Copperfield has been left on the shelf – it’s packed full of terrific characters, but the authorial stand-in narrator/hero is hard to shape as a protagonist as he is batted around in life, with many ups and downs, and his one decided action is taking up a pen to write the story. Iannucci, who co-scripted with Simon Blackwell, sidesteps this by framing the whole thing as a theatrical reading, with a few second takes and subjective realities that might have come from the Sterne adaptation A Cock and Bull Story but do canny things like abstract the wet Dora (Morfydd Clark) from the story in order to let the romantic plot play out the way readers might have preferred it for a century and a half. At two hours, it rattles through the plot – which has the effect of emphasising the coincidences, sudden shifts of fortune, melodramatic contrivances, and changes of locale and circumstance so that it’s impossible to cavil.
Dev Patel is a spirited David C (with Jairaj Varsani as the boy David), often trying to get a word in as other characters perform their set-pieces, and catching the inventiveness and grit that makes him a survivor but also the willingness to follow genially bad examples. Iannuci makes much of the way other characters try to change David’s name, which is always an attempt to wipe out an identity he hasn’t formed yet. This is a world of feckless or weak good people and flinty, seething villains – where eccentricity is mostly charming but rarely reassuring. And, of course, it’s a showcase for a range of top-rank character actors – cast colourblind, the way Shakespeare has often been but which feels fresh in Dickens – to do their turns. Peter Capaldi is slightly subdued as Mr Mickawber, perhaps because WC Fields casts a very long shadow over the role but also because that makes space for Hugh Laurie to bid for Best Supporting Actor gongs with an affecting, very modern take on Mr Dick, reading his notion of having headspace invaded by Charles I as a form of dementia. It resists a temptation to make the odious Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) sympathetic, showing how sly resentment has congealed in him – but the film makes Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), the rich wrecker who often has excuses made for him, into a scarcely less damaging character, with David caught between the ruthless ‘umble schemer and the careless aristocratic seducer.
Others do just get to show off – and this script makes a virtue of giving skilled players period language, so that it sounds a little like Deadwood without the swearing … Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating Betsey Trotwood, Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the crowlike Murdstones, Benedict Wong as tippler Mr Wickfield, Nikki Amuka-Bird as a stern Mrs Steerforth (nice to see that the colourblind thing means non-white actors get to play villains as well as goodies), Paul Whitehouse as Mr Peggotty, Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, Aimee Kelly as Emily. Dickens is still most often done on TV, and despite Iannucci’s small-screen pedigree, this has a different look – with a lot of casual period furnishings and clutter, but also some fantastical elements. The upturned boat house in Yarmouth is magical and candy-coloured when David visits it as a boy, but drab and cramped with beams he bangs his head against when he returns as an adult bringing along his worst best friend to trash the idyll. As expected, perhaps, this is mostly funny with flashes of anger or suspense – some of the text has been tailored for maximum laughs, but a lot of the good gag lines come from the source and don’t even need to be punched up.