If you happen to be an inclined fan of the high-end political satires Veep or In the Loop, then it is likely you’re already familiar with the work of Armando Iannucci. His brand of unapologetic wit taking a sharp turn toward the realistic is still like an ageless tonic that heals many wounds and can never go stale. So why does it feel so much like him to challenge all of that in a page-to-screen adaptation deconstructing Charles Dickens’ prose and giving another brilliant lead role for Dev Patel? Apparently, in The Personal History of David Copperfield, everything, just like this year, is weirdly different. Except here it is a somewhat fun little period piece escapism, even if it was tough to take seriously.
As a child, the optimistic David (Jairaj Varsani) had much room to grow his creativity. His best-written ideas are safeguarded in a special box that he protects like a mama hawk toward her kin. His fortunes change abruptly once his abrasive legal aunt and stepdad (Gwendolyn Christie and Darren Boyd) push David aside. They willingly send him off to a bottling factory in London, living under the cautious wings of Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Just one hardship or misunderstanding after another for Mr. Copperfield, and that only furthers his fuel, to write his frustrations out. To write his own story and share it as if it were a detailed dissertation to a captive audience.
For a story that was a pure product of the time it was written, Iannucci and frequent writing partner Simon Blackwell find a challenge worth solving. Make a whimsical adventure out of the pitfalls of child labor, narrowly escaping creditors and other random elements of the lower-class experience. Once I was willing to look past the jarring tonal change Iannucci is aiming for, I could once more appreciate his willingness to lean toward the silly. Without the need to deliberately prod at the weaknesses within any sort of system, much like his last feature, 2017’s The Death of Stalin, Iannucci has the freedom to think lighter, less conventional. Any other director would not have known how to handle such a concept with Dickens; Iannucci’s inventiveness is his greatest asset here, rolling with each punch in a confident stride.
Patel is like a rock in the lead, his portrayal of Copperfield a testament to triumphing over adversity, turning pain into productivity. For real, he has much to work through from a young age, and the ensemble cast Iannucci recruits only further illustrates the struggle and the reward. Their comings and goings all structured like distinct chapters. His original legal guardians disown him, Christie and Boyd baring their claws most adequately. Former Doctor Capaldi comfortably takes on the inept grouch as if it were his niche by now. If his next-door neighbor role in the live-action Paddington weren’t enough of an indicator.
The most current Paddington, Ben Whishaw poses a legal threat toward David’s growth as menacing lawyer Uriah Heap. Then we see the people most willing to show kindness, support David out of the dark. Hugh Laurie provides much-needed clarity portraying the eccentric, kite-obsessed Mr. Pink, alongside a chipper Tilda Swinton as the motherly Aunt Betsey Trotwood. Ever reliable Benedict Wong delivers on the comic relief playing a madcap drunkard with many a story to tell. And Dunkirk’s Aneurin Barnard, he’s a steady sail of a school friend for David, keeping his focus level with a firm melancholy. Character strengths proven in spades; I figure it’s just what Dickens would have clamored to see. Even as the film scurries through each moment without the clearest of paths.
What Iannucci and Blackwell could easily have improved upon, considering their source material, is simple enough to repair. First, define David’s personality more directly and keep him more at the front instead of playing the role of observer. Playing the narrator on a stage for your own story, that is justifiable. But if it comes at the cost of being less involved within the body of the story, that depreciates the role. Second, establish the fact that the tone involved is far from your typical English novel adaptation, or period drama, or a filmed version of a Dickens tale. It did not appear that obvious in my viewing until maybe 30 minutes in. There are stow stumbles out of the gate, and a wobbly ending to punctuate a most valuable or relatable theme. At least the film’s core will not lose any sight of its capabilities in the long run.
I still knew I was seeing an almost winner out of The Personal History of David Copperfield. Between its diverse casting, beautiful look, and sound aided by Christopher Willis’s score, and Iannucci’s very well-meaning intentions, there’s much to enjoy. Perhaps love, if watching with the right crowd. Patel goes the extra mile for that hilarity, an expansion of his performer’s range, which I hope to see more. While Laurie, Capaldi, even Swinton look to ramp up the whimsy, which works to their collective advantage. Smaller subplots don’t get as much attention as the need to be a different spin on a classic work, leaving it a bit more uneven. The impossible is suddenly more tactile in this Dickensian deconstruction, flipping the page and making it upbeat. And while the course is not totally set, it’s still an effective play. (C; ⅗ Horns Up!)
The Personal History of David Copperfield plays in select theaters this weekend; nearest that are open are in Olympia and Lacey; please be safe and smart if you choose to go; rated PG for thematic material and brief violence; 119 minutes.