The Personal History Of David Copperfield is 'buoyed by a magnificent ensemble cast armed with expertly polished one-liners'

Dev Patel as David Copperfield The Personal History of David Copperfield
Damon Smith

WRITER-director Armando Iannucci realises great expectations with his madcap spin take one of Charles Dickens's indomitable literary heroes.

The Personal History Of David Copperfield breathlessly abridges the mid-19th century serial and novel to focus on the quixotic and colourful characters, whose fates intersect with the titular hero.

A galaxy of stars in the British acting firmament sparkle in small yet perfectly formed roles including a delightfully bonkers Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, who mistakes salad dressing for smelling salts, and Peter Capaldi as lovable rapscallion Mr Micawber.

The setting may be pungently Victorian but the tone is unmistakably modern from the hero's knowing narration to nudge-nudge wink-wink flashes of directorial brio that bookmark each chapter of David's rites of passage.

Dev Patel plays the likeable comic foil in the midst of the madness, who is slowly educated in the whims of his fellow man, but flecks of tragedy are always hand-tied with fanciful ribbons to humour.

For example, when David's mother perishes, the sad news is related in hilariously ham-fisted graduations of the truth – "Very ill", "Dangerously ill", "She's dead!"

As a young tyke, David Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani) is raised by his mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) and housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) in a home filled with laughter and love until the arrival of a stern and cruel stepfather, Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd).

The new man of the house beats and terrorises David, who is dispatched to London into the dubious care of debt-riddled landlord Mr Micawber (Capaldi).

As David comes of age (now played by Patel), he aims to become a scholarly man of the world by attending a boarding school run by Mr Creakle (Victor McGuire).

New acquaintance James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) has a profound impact on David's outlook on the world and demonstrates the self-serving nature of the human condition.

In time, David seeks out his eccentric great-aunt Betsey Trotwood (Swinton), who lives in perpetual fear of donkeys with kite-flying companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), and is taken under the wing of respected lawyer Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong).

Wickfield's slippery clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), who is "attempting to learn gentleman's humour from a book", has unrequited romantic designs on the lawyer's daughter (Rosalind Eleazar) and sets in motion a plan to usurp David.

The Personal History Of David Copperfield barrels along at a jaunty pace, buoyed by a magnificent ensemble cast armed with expertly polished one-liners.

Period detail is suitably grim and fusty as a counterpoint to the light and breezy dialogue, which reminds us of how bitingly funny Dickens was on the page.

Iannucci's adaptation, co-written by Simon Blackwell, weaves pithy invented details into the fabric of Dickens's book without drawing undue attention to these delightful authorial touches.

Rating: 8/10

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (PG, 119 mins) Comedy/Drama/Romance. Dev Patel, Jairaj Varsani, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Victor McGuire, Darren Boyd, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar. Director: Armando Ianucci.

Released: January 24

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