Dev Patel shines in the lighthearted adaptation.

By Mary Sollosi
August 28, 2020 at 05:33 PM EDT
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To a filmmaker in search of a story, a Dickens novel must have an almost torturous allure. They're all packed with characters you love and hate, with funny or creepy or heartbreaking quirks and names so strangely expressive they've become idioms for human types. They've got tragedies and victories, shocks and payoffs, wild imaginings and sharp insights. All this, plus name recognition and the public domain! What's not to love?

In the case of David Copperfield — and most of the rest of the Victorian master's work, apart from a certain Yuletide novella — it's the page count. But Armando Iannucci takes some confident creative liberties to streamline the 19th-century tome for his spirited adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield (out now), to mostly charming results.

Dev Patel stars in the title role (with an adorable Jairaj Varsani playing child David) as the young man finding his way, encountering villains and friends as life shuffles him between homes and towns and possible futures. The sprawling story begins with David's birth, but he is cast out of his mother's house as a young boy by a cruel stepfather to work in a bottle factory, which he escapes to live with his aunt, who sends him to school, after which he goes to London, where the stories of all the characters he's met intertwine and the observant David finds love and his own calling as a writer of stories.

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There's no way to fit all of David Copperfield, with its broad scope and narrow specificities, into two hours; there are the usual characters combined and scenes skipped, a few fates unmet. Additionally, though, Iannucci (along with co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell) leans into the inevitable disparity, calling it out with a pair of meta tricks. The first is a framing device, of Patel standing onstage to introduce the forthcoming story as his own before walking right into the day of his own birth from there, providing commentary on the event. Iannucci nods, too, to the novel being Dickens' most autobiographical by winkingly conflating hero and author; the film makes brilliant use of some wonderfully descriptive phrases from the book as David's jotted-down observations, and in moments that recall the sly finale of Greta Gerwig's Little Women, the film's story changes as David writes it down, taking literal authorship over his life.

In calling out the tale's construction as a novel and its telling as a performance, Iannucci sidesteps the impossibility of faithfully bringing all of David Copperfield to the screen by adapting not only the book's text, but its very existence — and grants himself considerable freedom in the process. For all its careful reconfiguring, however, the film never finds its proper rhythm. It opens at breakneck speed, flitting between childhood scenes to introduce various characters whose first impressions matter but won't be important until later, then slows down considerably (and drops most of the theatrical flourishes and meta transitions) in the middle section, only to race through the requisite punishments for the wicked and rewards for the good in its last half-hour.

The film's madcap tone, which captures something of Dickens' own humor, makes the uneven pace slightly less jarring, but the ensemble of oddballs suffers from moving at such a clip — which is all the more disappointing when they're so brilliantly cast. With a bowl cut and a vile smirk, Ben Whishaw acquits himself well playing against type as the legendary slimeball Uriah Heep, but the character needs time for his shift from just insufferable to truly insidious to hit as hard as it should. Tilda Swinton as David's eccentric aunt Betsey, Hugh Laurie as her kite-flying cousin Mr. Dick, and Peter Capaldi as the eternal optimist Mr. Micawber are all particularly winning — but maybe because they're granted the most screen time.

The endlessly watchable Patel has to be the smartest piece of casting, though, his great openness and warm energy giving the sometimes-unwieldy dramedy a steady beating heart. (One of Iannucci's best decisions was to make the casting colorblind, unbound by pressures of family resemblances or historical accuracy when he's acknowledging this as an entertainment from the start.)

The film lacks the atmosphere of David Lean's Great Expectations or the weighty iconography of any one of a number of Christmas Carols, but a sincere affection for and understanding of the source material shines through in its wit and good nature. Maybe a writer whose oeuvre spreads to so many corners of humanity needs an equally wide-ranging filmography, to catch his many aspects. In that case, this Personal History is a worthy addition. B

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