What a delightful movie this was!
The book famously begins with David’s eyewitness account of his own birth. Director Armando Iannucci leans right in to this slightly skewed perspective, and the first-person viewpoint of the whole movie remains a little off balance. We see the ugliness of Victorian London – the child labor, the debtors’ prisons, the Gothic horror of the bottling factory. But everything is viewed through the relentless optimism of young David, who sees the world as it is but still learns to make his way in it.
Dev Patel is quite wonderful as the kid born to unlucky circumstances who nevertheless carves out a place for himself in a class stratified world. I think he’s played this role before.
The cast giving life to Dickens’ supporting characters is remarkable – some with names Americans might recognize (Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw) and others drawn from England’s deep bench of theatrical actors. I particularly liked Hugh Laurie as the kite-flying Mr. Dick (Mr. Kite?) – who knew he had such good comic timing? The director has an eye for the comic absurdities of the characters, but they are also recognizable as human beings.
The multiracial cast has been controversial with Dickens purists, but I rather liked it. As with modern Shakespeare productions, it had the effect of decoupling the story from its setting. As a result, it’s less of a Victorian period piece and more the story of a young man figuring out who he is and what he’s good at that just happens to be set in Victorian London. It’s more of a contemporary story, which is, after all, how Dickens’ original readers would have viewed it.
The film is having a small theatrical release now for some reason, but hopefully will be available soon on DVD or streaming platforms. Highly recommended.