Director Armando Iannucci—known for his biting political satires— approaches his newest film “The Personal History of David Copperfield” by employing colorblind casting in an earnest yet meandering reworking of Charles Dickens’ novel. The titular character opens the film on stage in a tiny theater, performing a live reading of his autobiography. His novel, told through voiceover, becomes the meta framing device in Copperfield’s retelling of his life—from childhood memories to his teenage years in a bid to make peace with his humble origins in a classist 1840’s London.
Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani) is initially born to a widowed mother. Later she marries the stern and ill-tempered Mr. Murdstone, a bottle manufacturer who has little time for his young stepson’s useless imagination. Murdstone soon sends the young Copperfield to work his bottle plant to learn the valuable lesson of child labor. From there, and over the course of his teenage years to adulthood, he encounters a band of eccentric characters—initially living with the debt-riddled yet lovable Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi, who is wickedly good) and his family. Mr. Micawber is emblematic of the adaption’s central dread: falling and climbing up the economic ladder. Copperfield later expands his circle, learning to survive among the struggling lower class.
Simon Blackwell and Iannucci overwrite the tone of these early scenes, Copperfield’s childhood, with overbearing earnestness. Victorian literature often reads as stuffy and stiff, and initially, the two screenwriters play on such derisions—lampooning the cheery artificiality of the novel’s dialogue. However, they often lean into such observations overzealously in a film that’s less of a whimsical modern adaption and more like “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960) in its gee-whiz allure. In fact, unlike Iannucci’s other films like “The Death of Stalin” (2017) and “In the Loop“(2009), ‘David Copperfield’ is devoid of expletives.
His adaption only picks up steam after the death of Copperfield’s mother, causing the adult protagonist (Dev Patel) to move in with his Aunt, Betsey Trotwood, (Tilda Swinton) and her companion Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Both Swinton—as the unhinged quick-witted nag—and Laurie, as a writer prone to flights of fancy, give incredible comedic performances—and for a period carry the film in a seamless double-act. A whole range of characters fill Copperfield’s life: his best friend Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) a scheming Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), the boozing Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and later Dora (Morfydd Clark, who nearly steals the film). Iannucci fearlessly allowed for colorblind casting, making for a stronger, modern, and diverse cast.
Unfortunately, Iannucci and Blackwell are so intent on making every quip funny, they lose the story. Dependent upon vignettes—the adaption’s scenes loosely string together through using shots Copperfield writing as chapter titles superimposed over him act as transitions. The film’s tone jarringly shifts—moving from idealized segments of the young Copperfield living in a seaside upside-down boat, glossy memories shot out of focus, to others of serious import—the child labor at the heart of the bottling plant. Nevertheless, the villains: Mr. Murdstone, Heep, and others—aren’t given the requisite foregrounding to be effective. They’re inert, like the story, driven to random madcap flights of cruelty.
And much as Patel might try, his ebullient performance isn’t enough. Because while he delightfully embodies the sincerity and charity of the character, Copperfield’s wit and charm—the character’s internal dread of society discovering his menial beginnings is underwritten. Instead, Zac Nicholson’scrisp sunlit bathed cinematography and Suzie Harman and Robert Worley’s chic bright costume designs entail a dreamlike world. In this setting, Copperfield’s never in any real risk of falling down the economic ladder. And by that token, Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”—outside of several laughs and a few charming moments—is never risky enough to sufficiently explore the deeper and modern issue of class division and those who can’t even climb up the ladder to fall. [C+]