Cert PG 119mins Stars 5
You don’t need to have read Charles Dickens’ eighth novel to enjoy this fresh, contemporary, provocative and brilliantly comic adaptation, which is a marvellously nimble and accessible take on his weighty and most autobiographical book.
Traditional in its period setting and modern in its approach, it’s written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the creator of scabrous TV satire, The Thick of It.
He’s sensibly ruthless in trimming the sprawling story to a manageable size, and is absolutely faithful to the tone and spirit of Dickens’ work.
There’s all the humour, whimsy and violence you’d expect, and the unmistakable social commentary has a heartbreaking resonance for a 21st century audience.
Having matured as a performer since his confident big screen debut in Danny Boyle’s 2008 Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel exhibits tremendous charm and awards-worthy range as Copperfield.
As the thinly veiled surrogate for Dickens, Patel brings an often sad dignity to the kind, hard working and much abused writer, who begins the film regaling a theatre audience with his life’s story.
We see it in flashback as he passes through a Victorian landscape of families, farms, law firms and tenements, with Copperfield suffering beatings, abandonment and mockery along the way.
Iannucci puts less brave filmmakers to shame with his colour-blind casting of Patel and other non-white actors such as Benedict Wong and Nikki Amuka-Bird, in what have previously been considered ‘white’ roles, and the director will probably delight affronting those who consider themselves defenders of tradition.
Copperfield’s fortunes rise and fall he searches for an identity, a home and a family, and despite gracefully anchoring the film, Patel has to frequently concede much of the acting ground to a bunch of performers who don’t need encouragement to steal a scene.
So it must be some consolation for Patel to possess a startlingly great gift for mimicry with which he sends up many of these characters as they keep criss-crossing his path.
The stacked cast features familiar faces such as Tilda Swinton, Paul Whitehouse and Gwendoline Christie, and while I’m not much of a Hugh Laurie fan, he’s wonderfully affecting as the troubled Mr Dick.
Ben Whishaw is magnificently reprehensible as the film’s villain, the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep, while longtime Innaucci collaborator Peter Capaldi, will win hearts as the luckless Mr. Micawber.
This is an often dark and interior tale full of anger, snobbery and cruelty, so to give us some light and cinematic oomph, it includes wonderful moments of magical realism, and lots of sweeping vistas.
A glimpse of the House of Commons under construction suggests the problems of today were set in stone back then, and it’s tragic so many of the issues damned by Dickens remain frighteningly relevant.
Dealing with exploitative bosses, rapacious landlords, criminal bankers and drunk lawyers, Copperfield also encounters hunger, homelessness, bailiffs, the shame of poverty and the problems of caring for the elderly and infirm.
Thankfully the story favours community over individualism and there are sufficient sentimental notes of sunny optimism to send us cheerfully on our way, which is no less than we, Dickens and Copperfield deserve.