Among Charles Dickens’ best-known novels, David Copperfield can be, at the same time, the easiest and the most difficult to summarize and describe. It’s a recollection of the titular 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 both found and stolen; and an elaborately convoluted formative story in which Copperfield’s identity evolves with the changing fortunes of a multitude of characters. These include some of Dickens’ most acclaimed creations, from shining examples of eccentricity and kindness to disdainfully drawn manipulators and snobs. One might presume that it’s the latter category that would attract filmmaker Armando Iannucci, whose satires In the Loop, The Death of Stalin, and Veep have taken aim at the motives and two-faceness of the political class. Yet his adaptation, 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 David Copperfield has rarely been adapted for the big screen. The most obvious is that 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 David Copperfield. He’s taken upon himself a task previously attempted by a slew of high-school English teachers: He’s out to prove that Dickens is very funny. And that’s pretty undeniable, even if the nine-hundred or so pages of the novel contains as much tragedy and melodrama as wry humor. Iannucci’s fondness for rhythmically improv-like performances and verbal contortion actually makes an interesting fit for Dickens: It’s known that the author made up much of the plot of the novel 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 the film does somewhat run into is that said plot, which when fast-forwarded into just under two-hours of comedy, the material becomes a clatter of one-note personality quirks, Victorian social ills, character introductions, crises, and scene transitions. In trying to convey what they seem to feel is the best of Dickens, Iannucci and his co-writer, Simon Blackwell, have also brought along his more tiresome qualities.
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 big-eyed romantic. Some credit is also due to a couple of interesting editorial decisions that Iannucci and Blackwell have made in tackling this mammoth text: first, by framing it as a story about a writer; 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 a dramatic reading of his own story to an audience, speedily walking through a backdrop into the day he was born. From there, the race is on. The happy childhood of the young David (Jairaj Varsani) is interrupted by cruelty at the hands of his step-family. 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 creditor-dodging gentleman Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi). The film oozes with a gooey sentimentality that has never been evident in any of Iannucci’s work before. Even well after Patel takes over the role as the older David, 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 also, interestingly, 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 of David Copperfield, things can get so glossed over to the point where one of Dickens’ most notable villains, the sycophantic Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), becomes extraneous; that Heep is somewhat Copperfield’s double never registers with the film’s happy-go-lucky tone. Elsewhere, Iannucci and Blackwell also seemingly update the source material to make it more easily digestible: the female tragedies are gone; Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) is given more emphasis. Even more with the cuts, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a plot machine. The result is an adaptation where Iannucci and Dickens’ sensibilities merge somewhat agreeably, which provides occasionally funny moments of comedy but largely irrelevant drama. The truth is that, despite the timeliness of poverty and class, the world that Dicken’s characters inhabit still seems far away. What feels more relatable in Dickens’ work is how his characters 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 in only one respect: It’s exhausting, yet with this movie, still somehow fleetingly rushed. As much as The Personal History of David Copperfield captures a certain pulsating, free-flowing wit and whimsy, it still occasionally falls into its own rushed shortcomings.
The Personal History of David Copperfield will be released into Select Theaters on August 28th