A Charles Dickens timeless classic gets a shiny modern update with Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. The 1850 novel is no stranger to the big and small screen, having been adapted at least thirteen times prior to this latest vision. Iannucci directs, co-writes, and produces a spirited update that unquestionably reveres Dickens’ Victorian-era tale. But his film feels like its only scratching the surface of the story and his chatty high-energy approach can be exhausting.
In Iannucci’s defense David Copperfield isn’t an easy book to adapt especially in a mere two hours of running time. So the Scottish filmmaker is content with just hitting the high points, focusing more on building a diverse cast and imbuing nearly every scene with positivity and a feel-good spirit. Obviously those are good things in their own right, but Iannucci’s script (co-written by Simon Blackwell) needs more. In its effort to be chipper it rarely conveys the pain behind the struggles we see. And that’s an issue since struggle is such a big part of the story.
One thing the film gets right from the very start is the casting of Dev Patel. As David Copperfield he brings admirable sincerity, a wide-eyed enthusiasm, and one great head of hair. Beginning with the same first-person perspective as the book, David begins telling his life story, the joys and the trials, while highlighting the key players who he meets along the way. And they are an eccentric lot, chewing up tons of screen time and often pushing Patel (unfortunately) into the background.
Our first stop on his journey to become a gentleman and a writer is during his childhood (younger David is played by Jairaj Varsani). He lives with his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) but he’s closest to their maid, the warm and caring Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). When Clara remarries we’re introduced to two of the film’s early villains, the abusive and domineering Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) along with his sister and enabler Jane (Gwendoline Christie). The sibling devils take over the household and ship off the non-compliant David to work in their bottle warehouse in London. While there David stays with the quirky but ever optimistic Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) who is in debt with every creditor in town yet always remains positive.
Having grown up in child labor and poverty, an older David (now played by Patel) runs away seeking the help of his kooky but well-to-do aunt ￼Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Her maternal instincts kick in high gear once a tired and famished David shows up at her spacious donkey-free cottage. David immediately hits it off with Betsey’s lodger, the even kookier Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) whose obsession with the beheaded King Charles I keeps him rattled and unable to finish his writing.
Even more people are introduced including Benedict Wong as a boozy Mr. Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes, Ben Whishaw as the wormy, vulturous Uriah Heep, Aneurin Barnard as the hard-to-read Steerforth, and Morfydd Clark popping up again playing David’s love interest Dora. So as you can see￼, it’s a character-rich story, so much so that their stories sometimes overpower David’s.
Back to Patel, few actors embody kindness and likability the way he does. He’s also a good David Copperfield for a movie wanting to infuse a modern vibe into a classic story￼￼. From the start you believe he’s a young man anxious to take on a cold, cynical world with a smile on his face, embracing its wonder and merrily working through its hardships. It culminates in an inspired journey of self-discovery and Patel gives us someone we’re eager to root for.
On paper that sounds great and I appreciate a movie with such strong feel-good aspirations, especially in 2020.￼￼￼ But its unbridled buoyancy strips the story of much needed tension. I mean we are talking about subjects like child labor, child abuse, and crippling poverty.￼ But the movie breezes by these issues, certainly acknowledging them, but with barely a whim of ￼￼￼commentary. I’m not saying every movie has to make deep thoughtful examinations of their subject matter. But gleefully glossing over it leaves the film feeling frustratingly ￼lightweight.
In fairness to Iannucci’s film, maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is meant to be a breezy, glass-half-full romp. A big-hearted period comedy overflowing with ￼rip-roaring non-stop banter￼￼ much of which David (like us) can only sit back and observe. Personally I prefer the quieter moments and tender touches. Such as David documenting human behavior on scraps of paper and keeping them in a cigar box like his most valued treasures. Or older David watching his own birth￼ in awe-struck wonder. These are the kinds of scenes that stood out the most. If only we got more of them. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is now showing in theaters.