“The Personal History of David Copperfield” was the big winner at Sunday’s British Independent Film Awards taking home five trophies: Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Laurie, Best Screenplay for Simon Blackwell and director Armando Iannucci, Best Casting (Sarah Crowe), Best Production Design (Cristina Casali), and Best Costume Design (Suzie Harmon and Robert Worley).
But while Iannucci’s film will undoubtedly continue to gain recognition for its below-the-line crafts, the writer/director is firm that his film is not just “a neatly tied-up period drama.” Rather, he characterizes it as “celebrating the Britishness that we don’t hear much about at the moment.” As he explains, “It’s so tempting to see Britain as isolated and withdrawn and serious at the moment. We forget that actually, for most people, Britain is funny, outgoing, generous and is about community. And that’s what this film is a celebration of.”
He believes the material is as relevant now as when it was published almost two centuries ago. “You don’t need to have heard of Dickens, you don’t need to have read the book, you don’t need to know anything about 1840. I said to the cast, behave in this film as if this is happening to you now. It’s about people and their lives, and we shot it, even though it’s set in 1840 as if this was their present day, and for the audience, it’s their present-day as well – I wanted the audience to connect with now so that it’s not an artifact.”
The color-blind casting of the film has been praised – no wonder, then, that it won the BIFAs inaugural Best Casting award. Iannucci credits that decision to following his instinct “to have a cast that reflected Britain now, but also who were just perfect for each part.” That color-blind casting started with Dev Patel.
Iannucci admits he had always seen him as gawky and awkward but, upon seeing “Lion” (2017), saw him as strong, focused, and centered. “Upon watching that film, I went ‘that’s David Copperfield.’ And once I had that idea, I couldn’t think of anyone else. I didn’t have a plan B. I sent him the script and, honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to do if he had said no.”
Patel missed out on Best Actor at the BIFAs (he lost to “The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor, who won for “Only You”). However, he could well reap a BAFTA bid. Remember, he won Best Supporting Actor at the BAFTAs for “Lion,” beating out eventual Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Iannucci says he would be thrilled. “I’d be chuffed if I had directed him to a Best Actor nomination! But it’s his doing – he’s terrific to work with and he’s in every scene in this film, doing comedy, drama, slapstick, visual stuff – it was a dream to work with him.”