The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) Cover

The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Armando Iannucci, is the film adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic 1850 novel David Copperfield. The film makes cinematic history, at least in the sense that it is the first theatrical film adaptation of the novel in fifty years. As for its long-term impact on cinema, it's suffice to say that Iannucci's take will hardly be historical. The film, which features Dev Patel as its lead, valiantly attempts to take a novel of one of the most acclaimed (and wordy) writers of all time, and condense it into a breezy two-hour feature film. It would be an understatement, therefore, to say that the end product feels mightily rushed despite its brimming wit and gleeful decadence. The Personal History of David Copperfield further attempts to imbue a plethora of stylistic flourishes to give the narrative a new life, but the efforts do little to fix the film's more central issues. This new adaptation is fleetingly entertaining and sardonically funny, but it lacks the craft and proper pacing to really keep you engaged with its characters. Given that adapting a Dickens novel is likely a formidable task in and of itself, Iannucci (who also co-wrote the adaptation with Simon Blackwell) deserves the credit for trying but the products of his attempts are unfortunately too uneven. Certain segments of the film are more engaging and funny than others, but the movie never ties together as a whole.

The performances in the film do help to give it a bit of spirited energy, however. Dev Patel and the many other players of this diverse ensemble cast relish their respective roles, and attempt to bring as much zeal and humor as they can to their characters. Patel, in particular, is endearing and funny but this is hardly destined to become one of his most defining or remembered roles. Tilda Swinton is nicely casted as Betsey Trotwood, and actors like Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Benedict Wong help to nicely round out the rest of the cast. All in all, this is a film and story that works because of the commendable and colllective efforts of the entirety of its cast, rather than one specific person.

There are moments of The Personal History of David Copperfield that seem to wonderfully capture the source material's cleverness and whimsy, but the film more often succumbs to the intrinsically difficult task of adapting long-form storytelling in a compact runtime. Whereas this year's earlier release Emma., also an adaptation of a classic British comic novel, successfully managed to capture the ethos of its source material overall, this film struggles to live up to that challenge. The film moves at breakneck speed, hardly giving its audience or any of its characters a moment to breathe or form any sort of real dramatic heft or connection. All the cleverness in this story just can't seem to hide the fact that this adaptation moves at too rapid of a pace to let it leave any sort of lasting narrative or even comic impact - even the quick wit begins to feel muddled by the whirlwind pacing. The film's attempt at subversive stylizations, including a silent film homage sequnce, only add to the film's sensibility of feeling excessively overstuffed. At the time of its initial release, Dickens' novel was serialized and presented in a written episodic fashion - maybe a TV series adaptation of this classic novel would have suited the story better. The Personal History of David Copperfield has its good moments, but never quite beats the odds stacked against it. This personal history has all the bells and whistles, but can't fully crack the comedic or dramatic soul of its story.

Final Verdict:The Personal History of David Copperfield attempts to adapt a classic novel in a breezy two-hour runtime, and the product of its efforts are middling and fleeting at best.