Whimsy and edge are a peculiar combination, and very few people can pull it off. Charles Dickens could, and it’s one reason his works were hugely popular when they were published and remain classics today: The delightful eccentricity of his characters — of their names alone — nestles against a portrait of Industrial Age England that’s honest and outraged enough to stir the conscience. The books simultaneously entertain and tell bitter truths.
But movies adapted from Dickens — and there are too many to count — struggle with this dichotomy; perhaps the best evidence is “Oliver!” (1968), an upbeat Oscar-winning musical about starving orphans and whores getting beaten to death. “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” newly arriving in newly reopened theaters, doesn’t suffer from that level of cognitive dissonance. In fact, it’s wholly enjoyable on a scene-by-scene and character-by-character basis. But the high spirits of this handsome, well-played production fight against low-angle glimpses of grinding poverty and penury until the entire affair has to be called a draw.
The director and co-screenwriter (with Simon Blackwell) is Armando Iannucci, taking a much-deserved vacation after seven seasons of HBO’s “Veep.” In that show and in films like “In the Loop” (2009) and “The Death of Stalin” (2017) — both modern masterpieces of political warfare — Iannucci was 100 percent edge, with a trenchant cynicism that eviscerated any and all pieties. Here his love of the source novel and his desire to meta-textually fiddle with it overrun any social concerns. His David, solemn and ingratiating, is played by Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), and the ironies of casting an actor of Indian descent as a stalwart young hero of the British Empire are implied rather than stated.
All of the casting is color-blind in a way that playfully calls attention to the artifice of the tale and to the conceit that David is relating his story as we watch. The film opens in a theatrical lecture hall that opens up into a colorful version of mid-19th-century England. Even by Dickens’s standards, “David Copperfield” is an overpacked hansom cab of characters, and Iannucci has a fine old time matching talented faces to squidgy names: Tilda Swinton as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, shooing donkeys from her yard; Hugh Laurie as gentle Mr. Dick, perhaps the first realistic schizophrenic in literature; Ben Whishaw sporting a tragic bowl cut as the groveling, malevolent Uriah Heep; Darren Boyd as David’s cruel godfather, Mr. Murdstone; and Gwendoline Christie (“Game of Thrones”) as his icy sister, Jane.
Iannucci weaves these characters and more through a galumphing pastel version of the novel, using theatrical scene transitions and dabs of surrealism to call attention to the story’s subjectivity. At the same time, you can tell he’s deeply invested in period: The re-creations of Yarmouth’s docksides, the back alleys of London, and the squalid bottle factory where young David (Jairaj Varsani) is sent to work are both lush and convincing.
The movie, then, is a picaresque that gets lost in the weeds of its own telling, the only theme being the hero’s struggle to define himself as a writer and his own man. (Tellingly, David is given different nicknames by almost everyone he meets; only Patel’s innate charisma keeps the hero from fading into the woodwork.) Parts work but others don’t, especially the scenes involving Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark), here portrayed as the ninny David falls for before finally realizing his true love is Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar). (In the book, Dickens kills Dora off; Iannucci has the character simply and nonsensically ask David to “write her out” of the story.)
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” does give viewers the weird deja view of seeing Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi (as the ever-hopeful Mr. Micawber) in the same frame — two long, lean figures who’ve each done sly work elsewhere. But if you’re hoping for the ruthless sting Capaldi brought to his role as the cabinet minister in “In the Loop,” you’ll be disappointed. Iannucci keeps cutting to homeless extras in the London streets and then back to the hero’s roller-coaster journey, yet the math never adds up. This is a movie about happy endings made by a man working hard to convince himself — just this once — that they exist.
Note: “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is available only at movie theaters. Please use your best judgment when deciding to attend.
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
Directed by Armando Iannucci. Written by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Rosalind Eleazar, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG (thematic material, brief violence).