Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw
Runtime: 1 hr 59 mins
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 17 September 2020
Synopsis: THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD re-imagines Charles Dickens' classic ode to grit and perseverance through the comedic lens of its award-winning filmmakers - giving the Dickensian tale new life for a cosmopolitan age with a diverse ensemble cast of stage and screen actors from across the world. Emmy® winners and Oscar® nominees Armando Iannucci (In The Loop, The Death of Stalin, HBO's Veep) and Simon Blackwell (In The Loop, HBO's Succession) lend their wry, yet heart-filled storytelling style to revisiting Dickens' iconic hero on his quirky journey from impoverished orphan to burgeoning writer in Victorian England.
It would never have been easy to squeeze Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel into a two-hour feature film, but ambition alone is not enough to redeem what is otherwise a scattershot, only occasionally engaging, adaptation which has little to offer anyone but the most die-hard Dickens’ fanatics.
If you haven’t yet heard of the literary classic on which this film is based, let’s just say it is widely regarded as one of the author’s best, a semi-autobiographical tale which touched on such issues as child abuse, social status and personal tragedy.
At the heart of it is the titular David Copperfield, who is shuffled between homes and towns and never quite has a choice over his own possible futures.
The story is sprawling, covering his myriad encounters from the time of his birth till he is a young adult, with an ensemble of supporting characters to lend colour to these formative years.
These episodes of David’s life begin with his cruel stepfather Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who casts David out of the house to work in a bottle factory; during his time at the factory, David is sent to stay with the forever-in-debt Micawber family, led by the garrulous Mr Micawber (a superb Peter Capaldi); upon learning about the death of his beloved mother, David escapes to the home of his eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), whereupon he meets her sweetly delusional cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie).
It is while with Betsey that David meets her business manager Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), who gets him a place at a school for gentlemen; there, he meets the egoistical Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) and the conniving Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), both of whom will play a significant role in altering the course of his life later on. David will also fall in love – first knowingly with the childish Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark), and then unknowingly with Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) – though it is clear whom he will eventually end up with.
Like we said, there is an overabundance of colourful roles which play varying degrees of significance in David’s life. As much as director Armando Iannucci injects momentum into the storytelling, there is no doubting that it advances in fits and starts, flitting from subplot to subplot in a spirited but hollow manner. The frantic pacing at the start followed by some considerable braking at the middle before the final rush in the last third, leaves little room for David – or us as his audience – to contemplate the meaning behind each of his encounters and appreciate the allegory behind them.
Than stick to the tone of his source material, Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell have leaned in heavily on humour, amplifying the eccentricities within the narrative to tell the story with amusing brio. Yet that madcap way of going about the tale is ultimately exhausting, and pretty soon, there is a certain randomness to the way characters flit in and out of David’s life that you wonder if it all isn’t just a complete and utter farce, so much so that any poignancy which could be found is lost.
If ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ remains affable all the way through, it is in no small measure due to the earnest and passionate performance of Dev Patel in the titular role. Patel is the film’s very beating heart, bringing warmth, nuance and verve to his character. It is a pity that the movie doesn’t give Patel the space or the time to settle into the role more deeply, but such depth escapes this fleeting adaptation whose post-modern edge also comes off gimmicky. Unless you’re a Dickens fan, there is little charm to be had in this coming-of-age tale that never quite knows what it wants to say.
(Not much charm or depth, this adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel boasts a passionate performance by Dev Patel in the titular role but little more)
Review by Gabriel Chong