Armando Iannucci goes all out for silliness in a bonkers, free-wheeling adaptation of David Copperfield which will either have you squealing with delight… or feeling just a little bemused.
Maybe a second viewing wouldn’t go amiss.
It’s certainly Dickens as you wouldn’t quite expect it, but Dickens delivered with an impishness and a warm-hearted playfulness that the great man would undoubtedly have enjoyed.
Dev Patel is superb as Copperfield, just about the only remotely sane person in a fast-changing, ever-crowded cast of complete eccentrics, just about every one of whom has a different nickname for him.
And that’s the idea behind it all: Patel’s Copperfield keeps a cool head amid all the nuttiness that life throws at him and he does so by scribbling it all down, honing his craft as a writer and trying to decide which of the pet names actually applies… before, of course, settling for his own name.
Along the way he confronts all the usual Dickens pitfalls: ghastly stepfathers, conniving rellies, caddish friends, exploitation and downright theft. And of course, young love… and seemingly a choice. It’s the rich tapestry which becomes the book, a book which book-ends the film.
Ben Whishaw is fantastically odious as Uriah Heep. You just long for him to get his comeuppance. Tilda Swinton is great fun as the donkey-bothering Betsey Trotwood; and Peter Capaldi is delightful as the ever-needy yet still strangely-dignified Mr Micawber.
But it’s Hugh Laurie – in full Blackadder mode – as Mr Dick who most deliciously wins in the nuttiness stakes, a gentle, thoroughly endearing creature who finds himself tormented by the thoughts Charles I had in his head at the moment of his execution. Thank goodness, Patel’s straight man Copperfield finds precisely the way to set those thoughts soaring. Which is exactly what Iannucci does with the story, playing fast and loose with it, wonderfully inventive with the scene changes and yet still managing to respect Charles Dickens and his creations. Already the film’s seeming better in hindsight. Those who hadn’t known quite what to expect really ought to plunge back in for a second helping…