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More Persuasively Dickensian: 'The Personal History Of David Copperfield' Reviewed

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A man who writes biting political satire turns out to be a fan of the sentimental charms of Charles Dickens. Critic Bob Mondello says Armando Iannucci, the creator of "Veep," proves he's a master of all kinds of laughter in the new film "The Personal History Of David Copperfield."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin with David Copperfield doing exactly what Charles Dickens did for much of his career - addressing an audience in a theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

DEV PATEL: (As David Copperfield) Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these moments must show.

MONDELLO: That's how the novel begins, and as the theater audience absorbs those words, the walls dissolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) I entered the world at the rookery.

MONDELLO: The day of his birth, his widowed mother attended by Mrs. Peggotty...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

DAISY MAY COOPER: (As Peggotty) I'm coming. I'm coming, as I promised.

MONDELLO: ...And a decidedly eccentric aunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Peggotty, Peggotty, Peggotty, you mean to say a human being went into a church and had their self named Peggotty? Did your mother sneeze when you were christened?

COOPER: (As Peggotty) Sorry. What was your name?

SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Trotwood. Trotwood.

COOPER: (As Peggotty) Trotwood. It's funny because I just thought your name was Pot Kettle Black when you walked in.

MONDELLO: That line is not by Dickens. It's by adapter Simon Blackwell and writer-director Armando Iannucci. But it's in the spirit of a character whose phrases young Davey, prompted by his mom, figures are worth remembering.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

COOPER: (As Peggotty) Well, what world of gammon and spinach it is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What did Peggotty say when you were little, the one you liked?

JAIRAJ VARSANI: (As Young Dave) A world of gammon and spinach.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That's a good one. I'll put that one down. Do you remember everything she says?

VARSANI: (As Young Dave) It's hard to forget.

MONDELLO: So were the folks he meets when his mum remarries and he gets sent away to work in a bottle factory...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

MONDELLO: ...To live on a beach in an inverted fishing vessel...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a downside, upside, capsized boat.

VARSANI: (As Young Dave) It's Aladdin's palace.

MONDELLO: ...And when he's grown up a bit, to live with Mr. Micawber, who tends to be not quite one step ahead of his creditors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

PETER CAPALDI: (As Mr. Micawber) Bailiffs. Hide the spoons.

MONDELLO: There's also the sweetly addled Mr. Dick.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

HUGH LAURIE: (As Mr. Dick) Somebody, please, King Charles I - are we certain that he's dead?

SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) When last seen in public, his head was not attached to his body.

MONDELLO: And this being Dickens, so many more - obsequious Uriah Heep and school bullies and romances with ladies, right and wrong, not to mention lessons in class inequality. Dickens wrote of "David Copperfield" that it was in his heart of hearts his favorite child among his novels. And Iannucci's glomming onto the fact that some of its elements track the author's own life gives the storytelling added heft.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And you made these tales of the factory boy up out of thin air.

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) All invented. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You should publish.

MONDELLO: Colorblind casting - black aristocratic mothers of white children, Asian bankers - gives the film's world far more diversity than even mid-empire London would have possessed. It's inclusive and vibrant, and absolutely everyone is terrific, no one more than Dev Patel, who turns out to be an ideal Dickensian leading man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) What are you doing?

SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Medicine. Reviving you.

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) This is salad dressing.

SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Is it? I thought it was Armagnac. Don't have my spectacles on.

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) Do you have a lettuce somewhere covered in anointment?

MONDELLO: Sentiment and sweetness, character for days, cinematic tricks to speed things along - it's all pretty exhilarating, really. Don't want to set up too great expectations, but "The Personal History Of David Copperfield" is at once modern and more persuasively Dickensian than anything I've seen since the 8 1/2 hour stage production of "Nicholas Nickleby" back in 1981. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.