Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is, if you can believe it, the first feature film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1850 Victorian-era masterpiece David Copperfield in 50 years. The novel is largely an autobiographical account of Dickens’ own life and experiences as funneled through the plucky titular hero, and if you’re familiar with the novel’s basic premise and major plot points, they’re all present, albeit presented in an creative new way, which is the ethnicity-blind casting. While this opens up roles for actors you might never associate with these characters, it never degenerates into a gimmick.
Iannucci (Death to Stalin) utilizes the whimsical humor of the author, while slightly updating the style for a modern era. It’s a noble effort that, unfortunately, doesn’t always work the way the filmmakers probably thought it would.
Set during the mid-19th century, the film chronicles the life of its title character, played by Dev Patel, as he tells his story to an audience of theatergoers. He begins when he was first born. As a young boy (Jairaj Varsani)hHis father passed away, but was raised under ideal circumstances by his mother (Morfyyd Clark) and his nanny (Daisy May Cooper). When a little older, he was sent to live temporarily with his nanny’s family. However, when he returns, his carefree life is flipped upside down as he discovers his mother had married a wretched man, Mr. Murderstone (Darren Boyd), who ends up beating David and sending the boy away to work at a factory.
From here, David grows into a young man (Patel), and his life takes many twists and turns as he encounters unique characters and experiences both wealth and poverty in extreme fashion. Iannucci’s film is highly stylized, utilizing unique frames of action, projecting flashbacks on the walls behind characters, or inserting a grown Copperfield into a scene when he was a boy, allowing the two actors to interact. Later, the actress who plays David’s mother also plays his love interest (!).
The intriguing, yet accessible, moviegoing experience often helps us see past its narrative problems, and there’s no doubt Iannucci is a gifted filmmaker. He’s also a gifted writer, a skill that’s not always evident when he’s editing the original Dickens.
David Copperfield chaotically runs through a long series of events with haste, especially early on when we’re trying to soak in all the details. The rushed plot points jump from one to the next, as though Iannucci is desperately trying to squeeze every detail into the (relatively meager) 2 hour runtime, often glossing over important moments. A significant character will be in the movie for 3 minutes and then leave without us knowing what purpose they serve until 90 minutes later when we forget they were even there to begin with. Yet the most important issue, being the one with David’s stepfather, doesn’t get any closure when that’s the one time we need it most.
This isn’t, however, to equate to a lack of flow. Iannucci handles the absence of direction in Dickens’ original story with enough strings of semblance scattered about that the audience always has at least something to cling to.
Relentlessly quirky, the film often seems to be having a lot more fun than the audience is having watching it. However, Iannucci does good by the source material by proving how well Dickens’ whimsy holds up compared to the state of comedy we’re currently in. Co-written by Simon Blackwell, the script mixes the classic dialogue with modern silliness, displaying how well they can blend together when done properly. Still, Dickens’ wordplay may have felt fresh back in the 1980s, even with modern flourishes it can come off a little pretentious.
The flippancy can make it difficult to sympathize with characters, especially flawed ones. I found myself unsatisfied seeing David fulfill his dreams, perhaps because of how hasty the story was told, but also because he grows into a boring young man. We obviously sympathize with him because of his past, but also as he becomes more accepted by his peers, he essentially sells himself out and gets a little cocky, seeming to forget his roots.
We know there are stakes, but we don’t necessarily feel the pressure of them. As David begins to find himself in high society, he doesn’t want his new friends learning about his rocky past. But why? I get that this is 150 years ago and societal expectations were different back then, but it’s not like the boy was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus. Also, we don’t necessarily like these new “friends” of his anyway, so why would the audience care if he lost their approval?
While strongly acted, two performances stand out above the rest. The first is Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, the peculiar family friend who claims he has the brain of 17th century King Charles I. Laurie’s comedic chops are on full display with some of the more subtle and unintentionally (possibly ad-libbed) humorous bits in the film. The second notable performance is Ben Whishaw’s turn as the notorious Uriah Heep, the villainous sycophant who manipulates his way to the top of the law firm that repossesses David’s aunt’s home. Whishaw manages the nuances of his complex role with ease and convinces the audience to hate him just as much as David does.
Much like Dickens’ original novel, many of the other characters are portrayed as cartoonish stereotypes, with some antagonists nearly stooping to twisting their own mustaches. Early on, David works in a factory where everyone literally points and laughs when somebody messes up. Yes, how cruel, indeed. These caricatures make sense when you consider these stories are David’s interpretation of his past as he tells them to an audience. However, they don’t necessarily translate well cinematically.
The Personal History of David Copperfield might find approval among hardcore Dickens fans (which totally exist), but for casual viewers, Iannucci’s self-aggrandized vision may fall a little flat, while giving them headaches as they try to comprehend 2 hours of 19th century Cockney accents. That said, the film is expertly cast, brilliantly acted, and just cinematic enough to keep things interesting. It’s just a shame the movie as a whole isn’t as entertaining as its individual parts.