Review by Sean Boelman
An adaptation of the beloved novel by Charles Dickens and the first foray of satirist Armando Iannucci into a more broad form of comedy, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an agreeable film. However, despite a few magical moments, the movie feels too safe to leave much of a lasting impact.
The story follows an orphan who, through childhood and into adulthood, is able to overcome a series of obstacles and challenges to achieve success in life. This is as uplifting a tale as ever, and the brightly whimsical tone that Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell bring to the adaptation makes it pretty charming, but something is missing from the equation.
Perhaps it is the fact that the film feels like it doesn’t really have anything to say. Yes, there’s the obvious message about hard work paying off, but that’s really only the surface of Dickens’s story. The not-too-subtle subtext about the exploitation of the working class is lost, the movie presenting the antagonistic forces as cruel people rather than a cruel system.
Or maybe it is that the film is shoddily-paced. Portions of the movie, particularly relating to the protagonist’s romantic exploits, drag significantly, while other subplots are relegated to one or two scenes. Dickens’s plotting is quite intricate, and this adaptation instead turns it into something that feels ready-made for mass consumption.
Granted, there are a good deal of laughs to be had, some from the witty dialogue and others from the charm of the characters. Iannucci and Blackwell do an excellent job of capturing the eccentric nature of Dickens’s characters and translating it to the screen, with good casting of Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Tilda Swinton to bring them to life.
The film also looks excellent. The production design and costuming are wonderful, the colors vibrant, and the overall visual energy of the movie is infectious. Iannucci clearly has plenty of creativity to spare, leaving one to wonder why he didn’t try to do something more with the material than make a rather straightforward period piece.
That said, the single greatest strength of the film is without a doubt Dev Patel’s wonderful performance in the leading role. Without the charm and humanity that Patel infuses into the character, this would have been a pretty but bland adaptation. Thanks to his impeccable delivery, he holds the movie up almost entirely on his own.
There’s really nothing too bad to complain about regarding The Personal History of David Copperfield, but apart from some good visuals and a great cast, it doesn’t really stand out. With this level of talent involved, it should have been brilliant, but it’s just fine.
The Personal History of David Copperfield opens in theaters on August 28.