The complex, though admittedly often ridiculous, characters who populate David’s life become nearly as fantastical as Scrooge’s three ghosts. The winsome family by the sea, the Peggottys; the artful debt dodger, Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi, aka Dr. Who); donkey-foiling aunt, Miss Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), and her sidekick, the kite-flying Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie)—Iannucci draws them all as outlandishly as cartoons.
In the novel, the humor comes from wincing at relatable shortcomings as much as guffawing at parodies and pratfalls. Even today, I can hardly hand over my debit card at the Nordstrom annual sale without ruefully reflecting on that sage wisdom Micawber always failed to follow: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
The same goes for Mr. Wickfield’s alcoholism and Dora’s immaturity and attention-seeking. Iannucci plays them solely for laughs, never for the tragedy we see in the source material. We don’t yearn to see David come to his senses and finally recognize that Agnes would be a wife worth more than rubies because we never fully appreciate what counterfeit glitter Dora offers.
The most redemptive arc of the novel—the fall and recovery of Little Em’ly—is present in broad strokes, but there simply isn’t time to touch on Dickens’ deep, Biblical theme of Hosea pursuing his wayward wife or the prodigal’s father abandoning honor to run to his son. That would require an entire film to itself (one I’ve often longed to see).
The upside to a lighter, more candy-colored Copperfield is it’s short, sweet, and PG enough to please all but the youngest ages. Even the villains are more amusing than threatening (especially Ben Whishaw’s sniveling, ’umble Uriah Heep, who has all the menace of a Roald Dahl illustration). Meaning, there’s little to cause nightmares or spark questions parents may not be ready to answer. While it may not have as much salt to balance out the sugar that Dickens purists might wish, this Copperfield is still a treat.