Note: The writer of this review watched The Personal History Of David Copperfield from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Click here for an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Among Charles Dickens’ best-known novels, David Copperfield is both the easiest and the most difficult to summarize. It’s an account of the title character’s life from birth to adulthood, where he eventually finds success as an author and marries his true love; an exploration of happiness as a quantity that can be both found and stolen; and an elaborately convoluted bildungsroman in which Copperfield’s identity evolves with the changing fortunes of a multitude of characters. These include some of Dickens’ most memorable creations, from shining examples of eccentricity and kindness to disdainfully drawn manipulators, toadies, and snobs.
One might presume that it’s the latter category that would attract Armando Iannucci, whose expletive-laden satires In The Loop, The Death Of Stalin, The Thick Of It, and Veep have taken aim at the motives and double speak of the political class. Yet his new adaption The Personal History Of David Copperfield speeds through the novel with buoyant optimism. This mindset is probably a necessity, because there are compelling reasons why Copperfield has rarely been adapted for the big screen. The most obvious is that, by pure word count, it’s Dickens’ longest novel, and about twice as long as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, or A Tale Of Two Cities.
However, Iannucci is mostly interested in one side of Copperfield. He’s taken upon himself a task previously shouldered by multiple generations of high-school English teachers: He’s out to prove that Dickens is very funny. This is an undeniable fact, even if the 900 or so pages of the novel contain as much tragedy and melodrama as wry humor. Iannucci’s predilection for rhythmically improv-like performances and verbal contortion actually makes an interesting fit for Dickens: The author made up much of the plot of Copperfield as he went along, and, more so that any popular author of the first half of the 19th century, he loved to write about the way people talk.
The problem is that said plot, when fast-forwarded into just under two hours of comedy, becomes a clatter of one-note personality quirks, Victorian social ills, character introductions, crises, and scene transitions—accompanied in one case by the literal banging of pots and pans. In trying to convey what they seem to feel is the best of Dickens, Iannucci and his co-writer, Simon Blackwell, have brought along his more tiresome qualities and lost many of the ironies.
That isn’t to say that The Personal History Of David Copperfield fails to bring some ideas to its source material. The most conspicuous of these is the colorblind casting, which gives the movie a winningly likable Copperfield in the form of Dev Patel. It’s probably one of the best renderings of a Dickens protagonist on screen: a striver, mimic, and occasional moon-eyed romantic. Some credit is also due to a couple of smart editorial decisions that Iannucci and Blackwell have made in tackling this mammoth text: first, by framing it as a story about a writer (which it is to an extent); second, by occasionally embracing Dickens’ theatricality.
This lends the film a few genuinely compelling moments that mix stage and movie artifice, starting with the first scene, in which Copperfield begins the kind of dramatic reading that Dickens performed on his tours before walking speedily through a backdrop into the day he was born. From there, we race. The happy childhood of the young David (Jairaj Varsani) is interrupted by cruelty at the hands of his step-relations. He is sent to work at a factory in London, and soon begins to make the acquaintance of a large cast of comic-relief characters whose constant entrances and exits eventually begin to resemble a talent show.
Among them are David’s great aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who wishes he were a girl; the mentally ill Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who can’t stop thinking about the decapitated 17th century monarch Charles I; the dipsomaniac Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong); and, of course, the lovable, creditor-dodging gentleman Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi, in a role once played by no less a personage than W.C. Fields). One begins to wonder whether The Personal History Of David Copperfield could use more breaks through the fourth wall, because those are the parts where its rushed storytelling is at its most seamless.
Instead, what oozes in is a gooey sentimentality that has never been evident in Iannucci’s work. Even well after Patel takes over the role, it’s hard to shake the impression that David’s life is a protracted childhood, full of escapades, wonders, and mystifyingly kooky adults. This is a Copperfield who never matures, and whose first love, Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark, who, intriguingly, also plays his mother), is simplified into a cringe-comedy courtship. Of course, Dickens also had a weakness for the maudlin. But in his novels, it coexists with the misfortunes and disillusionments that befall his characters.
In The Personal History, these are glossed over to the point where one of Dickens’ finest villains, the sycophantic and parasitic Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), becomes extraneous; that Heep is in some ways Copperfield’s double is not something that squares with the happy-go-luckiness of the film. Elsewhere, one finds Iannucci and Blackwell updating the source material to make it more easily digestible: trimming away various Victorian tropes of female tragedy; putting more emphasis on the character of Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar); capping the number of colorful rustics that pass through the story. But even with severe cuts, the movie is breathlessly overwhelmed by the episodic plotting, leaving no room to fill in the glaring emotional gaps.
The result is an adaptation that’s occasionally funny as sketch comedy and largely irrelevant as drama. The truth is that, despite the unfortunately eternal timeliness of poverty, class, and the threat of debtors’ prison (or its modern equivalent), none of us can completely relate to the world that Dickens’ characters inhabit. What we can always relate to, in the novels and in the best Dickens adaptations, is how they end up feeling about their lives. Though Patel makes his Copperfield a credible budding storyteller, the life he reinvents and rediscovers in writing is relatable to us in only one respect: It’s exhausting.