Armando Iannucci deals in fools, liars and bullies. Not every character in the Scottish writer-director’s shows and films is an outright jerk, but what has made everything from The Thick of It to In the Loop to Veep so piercingly funny is that he has a knack for illustrating how seductive and witty meanness can be. It’s no surprise that his breakthrough work has often been set in the corridors of power: Ruling others has a tendency to bring out the worst in people, and while his characters trade in putdowns and emasculations, what they’re really doing is illustrating their own vanity and insecurity. Deep down, we’re suckers for terrible human beings in positions of authority — at least in our fiction, where it helps make the pain of the real-life terrible human beings in positions of authority slightly more tolerable — and Iannucci skewers their hypocrisy while entertaining us with their wretchedness. The sharpest tongue and vilest mind usually triumphs in an Iannucci production — or, conversely, the biggest goddamned idiot, because that’s just the way this stupid world works.
For these reasons, it’s jarring to encounter his latest film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, an altogether charming comedy based on the Charles Dickens novel. There are fools and jerks in this adaptation, but by and large, it may be the most optimistic thing he’s done. But that brightness doesn’t mean he’s lost his knack for cultural commentary. If anything, the film is a rejoinder to the xenophobia and classism he sees around him. David Copperfield is Iannucci allowing that, sometimes, the nastiest person isn’t necessarily the one who comes out on top.
Iannucci makes his intentions known instantly by casting Dev Patel in the role of David, a likable fellow in Victorian England who comes from nothing and hopes to one day be a writer. The character, who was white in Dickens’ book (which was published in installments starting in 1849), hasn’t been modified to reflect the British-Indian actor’s heritage — rather, he’s essentially just the same guy from the novel, encountering everyone from the eccentric Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) to the sniveling Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) to the lovely Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), who long nurses a crush on the oblivious David.
The writer-director has said that he wanted his color-blind, multicultural casting to reflect modern-day England. (“[It’s] so easy in the current debate to portray Britain as isolationist, exclusive, narrow-minded, and that’s not Britain,” he mentioned last year. “So this is really a celebration of what I feel Britain is, which has to do with its creativity and scale and ambition and variety.”) But as someone who’s never read the Dickens novel, what stood out to me was that the film feels blazingly timely simply because Patel’s ethnicity makes David’s struggles all too resonant. The characters in Iannucci’s film dress in Victorian garb, but the struggles of an outsider are so much more pointed when his skin doesn’t look like many of the other characters’ — especially those in positions of power.
When David starts to find his footing in adult life after a hardscrabble childhood in poverty, he begins courting Dora (Morfydd Clark), a beautiful white woman from a rich, influential family — and it’s hard not to consider that David’s wooing is, in part, out of desire to be accepted by “mainstream” (i.e., white) society. In Iannucci’s telling, the machinations of being accepted are even more fraught when both your social standing and ethnicity label you as less-than.
Race and class have often been at the heart of Iannucci’s work. (Veep especially dramatized white politicians’ cynical leveraging of different racial groups’ support by playing into stereotypes about them.) Beyond their brilliantly vicious one-liners, his shows frequently explore how those in authority stringently maintain a status quo where they can remain on top of the pecking order — the only time his characters are really interested in change is when it can positively affect themselves. (The verbal taunting is just another way for someone like Selina Meyer to assert her dominance over her subordinates.)
But that approach can grow stale. As much as I admired 2017’s The Death of Stalin, it didn’t feel terribly different from his earlier backbiting comedies. What was most remarkable was that, while the film was predictably funny, it didn’t have the same glee as his previous work. Rather, there was something despairing and ugly about the wheeling and dealing — especially because Iannucci never let the audience forget how ordinary Soviet citizens were being victimized by these cruel men dividing up the nation’s spoils for themselves. The Death of Stalin was a movie where every laugh had a sting to it. Suddenly, Iannucci’s world of exceptional meanness wasn’t so academic and amusing — real lives hung in the balance.
After the boiling rage of The Death of Stalin — and the mixed reviews for his HBO series Avenue 5, which I haven’t seen yet but feels very reminiscent of Iannucci’s earlier shows — you can understand why he might be interested in switching gears. And it’s not as if he hasn’t expressed his enthusiasm for Dickens before: His 2012 BBC special Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens gave him an opportunity to declare his allegiance to the writer, saying, “I think he’s the funniest comedian we’ve ever produced.” But while The Personal History of David Copperfield is funny in spots — a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi is good for a string of laughs — what’s interesting is that the jokes aren’t the movie’s selling point. Rather, it’s the sweetness — and its affection for David, who will find his confidence as he becomes a man.
There are few idealists in Iannucci’s world — normally, they get that naiveté beaten out of them or they’re just simpleminded idiots worth mocking — but as played by Patel, David is a goodhearted young man who’s experienced prejudice but hasn’t lost his optimism along the way. Unlike a lot of Iannucci characters, he’s on the bottom, not the top. Throughout the film, as in the book, David keeps receiving annoyingly cutesy nicknames, and Patel gives you a sense of a pushover who hates each and every one but is too afraid to stand up for himself and say otherwise. Used to characters running with wolves, Iannucci gives us a young man who leads with kindness, which doesn’t mean he won’t face the cruelty of the world. (Beyond racism, David is also the victim of swindlers and loathsome bosses.) But Patel’s preternatural charm won’t let anything get to David. Even if you’ve never read the book, it’s fairly apparent that a happy ending will be his.
This generally glowing view of humanity may be strange for Veep fans who lived for that show’s string of beautifully expressed vulgar insults and monstrous politicos. But when discussing his new film, Iannucci has gone out of his way to insist that his breezy Dickens adaptation isn’t some sort of personality transplant for him. “Personally, I’m an optimist,” he said, “and I’m not swearing and I don’t kill people. … [But] I can see, externally, why after stuff like Thick of It and Death of Stalin people might have a different view of it.”
That optimism radiates throughout this movie. But by embracing a measure of hope, Iannucci isn’t negating his usually caustic view of human nature. If anything, The Personal History of David Copperfield argues that the bastards are still all around us. Every once in a while, though, the good guy might actually win.