“The Personal History of David Copperfield” — the umpteenth stab at visualizing Charles Dickens’s favorite novel — is so sincere in its telling and so innocently buoyant in its presentation that I had to do a double-take on the writing and directing credits. Armando Iannucci? The Scottish satirist and king of the blisteringly profane diatribe? Surely not.
Surely yes. A wordsmith of uncommon force and fluidity, Iannucci might be one of the few writers undeterred by this doorstop of a tale about one man’s bumpy journey from infancy to middle age. Restructuring some story arcs and jettisoning others, Iannucci and his collaborator, Simon Blackwell, have created a souped-up, trimmed-down adaptation so fleet and entertaining that its cleverness doesn’t immediately register.
The movie opens as theatrically as it means to continue, with the adult David (a smashing Dev Patel) introducing himself to a packed theater audience before stepping, quite literally, into his past to view his birth. From there, a breathlessly swerving narrative sees David’s seesawing fortunes bounce him from countryside to seaside to miserable London factory, and from one idiosyncratic family to another: The merry, kindly Peggottys in their chaotic houseboat; the chronically indebted, forever optimistic Micawbers (led by the brilliant Peter Capaldi), their cheer undiminished by the occasional night on the streets.
Even in the gutter, though, Zac Nicholson’s images give off a magical sheen: This isn’t the grubby, gunk-filled London we typically envisage as Dickensian, teeming with urchins and top-hatted toffs. Accenting the fairy-tale aspect of our hero’s rise, Iannucci keeps the social realism on simmer and Patel’s enthusiasm and optimism on a rolling boil. Dickens characters can sometimes strain to detach from the page, but Iannucci’s playfulness — a bit of slapstick here, a silent-movie homage there — help realize a child’s point of view or a disturbing memory. These give the film a breezy visual vigor that pushes it through the rare narrative doldrums.
And then there’s the cast, a multiethnic treat whose diversity is neither text nor subtext, but a reminder that the alabaster complexions of many a costume drama should not be mistaken for historical accuracy. Potent turns from Jairaj Varsani, as a young David; Rosalind Eleazar, as the unflappably loyal Agnes Wickfield; Benedict Wong as her cheerfully hammered father; and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the hilariously class-conscious mother of David’s boarding-school friend, Steerforth (a perfectly languorous Aneurin Barnard), have a leveling effect that both modernizes and equalizes David’s world.
With its witty scene transitions and bolting pace, “Copperfield” (Iannucci’s third feature, after “In the Loop” in 2009 and “The Death of Stalin” in 2018) can be so distracting that its more subtle performances go underappreciated. No one can ignore Tilda Swinton’s deliciously eccentric, donkey-phobic Betsey Trotwood, but Hugh Laurie’s sweetly addled distress as her cousin, Mr. Dick, his head rattling with the words of a long-beheaded monarch, requires a kind of modest genius to pull off. Similarly, Ben Whishaw’s quietly slinking Uriah Heep, squinting from beneath pudding-bowl bangs, is a creepy joy.
“Are you worried humbleness is an infectious disease?,” he asks, when David instinctively recoils. Performances like these ground the film’s fancies in the very real stakes of pennilessness and abandonment; but “Copperfield” is, most of all, the story of a writer, and Iannucci stamps that theme on almost every scene. Whether using characters to poke sneakily at Dickens’s narrative weaknesses, or having David show Mr. Dick how to metaphorically publish his bothersome thoughts, Iannucci insists that putting words on paper is an act of self-determination. For David, furiously scribbling his collected memories, the choices he was never permitted to make in life can now be made on the page.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Rated PG for terrified donkeys and a terrifying stepfather. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Opening in select theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.