Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, a comedic update to the Dickens classic, premiered in Toronto last month and opens the BFI London Film Festival tonight. Like Toronto, the LFF is both a summing up of what the programmers deem to be the best work of the year so far and a revving up for the long season of awards and list-making ahead. Unlike TIFF or just about any other festival, though, London’s 229 features are divided into sections by theme rather than genre or budget. Strands bear such labels as Love, Dare, Thrill, Journey, or Debate. But there are also four competitions—official, first feature, documentary, and short films—and plenty of galas.
With a cast led by Dev Patel and including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, and Peter Capaldi, David Copperfield is most definitely a gala presentation. “Undaunted by an epically episodic narrative that strains credulity at every turn, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell cannily frame the proceedings as the creative, tragicomic memoirs of the eponymous artist-in-waiting, an act of prodigious and inspired recollection,” writes Tom Charity in one of the over fifty—and counting—reviews of films in this year’s program from Sight & Sound.
Iannucci also “employs some unexpected stylistic touches and adds racial diversity to his color-blind cast,” notes the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee, “but stops short of anything that would drastically modernize the text. Instead, he finds a way of transposing his rhythm on to the source material, creating the sort of well-choreographed, well-timed group comedy that makes his narrative work so distinctive. It’s a deceptively delicate art of his, one that comes to life with sharp dialogue and canny direction.” In his television work (The Thick of It and Veep) and his features (In the Loop and The Death of Stalin), Iannucci “has assumed the role of a we’re-all-fucked pessimist, albeit of a blisteringly funny sort,” writes Keith Uhlich for Slant. “Though it doesn’t lack spiky edges, David Copperfield is the first time Iannucci revels, unexpectedly, in optimism.”