THE STORY – The life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity, with his own adventures and the web of friends and enemies he meets along his way.
THE CAST – Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw & Paul Whitehouse
THE TEAM – Armando Iannucci (Director/Writer) & Simon Blackwell (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Charles Dickens has never been as funny as “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” British satirist Armando Iannucci’s take on Dickens’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman. A good thing, too, since the man’s famously lengthy novels (he was paid by the word – we respect the hustle) are not renowned for their great humor, even if they are sprinkled with wit. The choice to adapt a Dickens novel feels strange for Iannucci who has been known as one of the sharpest political satirists of the new millennium, thanks mostly to his TV series “Veep” and “The Thick of It” (the latter spun off into the singularly hysterical film “In the Loop”). Not that there isn’t some stealthy satire in Dickens’s works, but between the period setting and the lack of politics as a guiding force, it feels out of character. And while the film is a noble effort, it does feel as though this wasn’t the best match of director/co-writer to the material.
The film’s plot centers around the young David Copperfield (Dev Patel) and his adventures in the mid-1800s as he goes from his home in Suffolk to live with his housekeeper by the sea in Yarmouth. Then to London to work in a bottle factory while living with the genial con man Micawber (Peter Capaldi), then to live with his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) in Dover, then to a boarding school, then back to London as his fortunes rise and fall. The supporting characters of his life are played by some of the most recognizable character actors in England, and each has a grand time chewing the scenery in their own special way. Tilda Swinton is loud and eccentric, Hugh Laurie is perpetually befuddled as Betsey’s boarder Mr. Dick, Peter Capaldi is brash and jovial, Morfydd Clark is the epitome of dim, girlish innocence as David’s eventual financée Dora Spenlow, Daisy May Cooper is salt-of-the-earth warm as the housekeeper/surrogate mother Peggotty, and Benedict Wong is gravelly-voiced and perpetually soused as the lawyer Mr. Wickfield.
This adaptation of “David Copperfield” boasts a color-blind cast that never announces itself or attempts to make a larger point. It just simply is. Starting with Patel as the older David Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani is adorable as the younger version), the film offers a vision of a London – indeed, a Great Britain – that never was, but that it could still aspire to be: An egalitarian land where no one is put down simply because of the color of their skin. It’s a lovely sentiment and the fact that the film never once underlines it or strains to justify it is refreshing.
Patel is an ideal center for the film, able to provide a strong grounding presence without making David merely the straight man to the cast of clowns around him. His boundless energy and expressive face make him a joy to watch. Iannucci seems to have told the cast to go as big and bold as they’d like, and each of them takes the opportunity and runs with it, making memorable impressions even if they don’t get many lines. The production design and costumes are the perfect complement to the big characterizations, surrounding them in so many bright, contrasting prints that it threatens to overwhelm the senses, but never quite does. Instead, it contributes to the feeling that each frame of the film is bursting with life.
That energy, however, doesn’t always work with the story, which takes several sad and distressing turns. The screenplay (co-written by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell) makes some smart decisions with regards to the plot of the book – many plot points are rearranged, combined, or excised altogether – but it’s much more interested in dropping these fun characters into scenes with each other and seeing what happens than it is in the actual plot. When the plot does come into play, usually in the form of bad news being delivered to David, the film grinds to a halt. Iannucci is never able to manage these wild tonal shifts in a way that feels organic. Instead, he prefers to hit the breaks for a few minutes and then rev the engine back up as soon as possible. This means that the impact of much of the plot is dulled. And when the end does roll around, it feels pre-ordained and “nice” when it should feel more hard-won for the characters.
Iannucci proves to have a way with whimsy here, and it certainly helps the film feel enjoyable. He has corralled quite a cast and allows them all to shine in their own special ways. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” works surprisingly well when letting its more farcical side run wild. The energy of the performers and Christopher Willis’s jaunty score carry the audience along delightfully. But whenever that energy has to drop off for a bit, it feels like the wind has been knocked out of the film, making for an uneven viewing experience. It’s enjoyable, but the lack of cumulative impact by the end makes it feel like a trifle that will be long forgotten by the time the next version of this oft-told tale eventually comes along.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An incredible ensemble is given free rein to chew the scenery in any way they please – in fancifully beautiful interiors.
THE BAD – The rushed pacing does the screenplay’s wild tonal shifts no favors.
THE OSCARS – None