Movie Review: “The Personal History of David Copperfield”

My favorite filmic version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the one with The Muppets. Fabulously presented, the whole thing unfolds so as to not only offer up the story and insights into the nature of humanity, but contains more than a few excellent jokes as well. It is ludicrously funny at the same time that it is deadly serious. It is even incredibly good at offering up not just Dickens’ sentiment, but his actual words.

Watching Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” I am reminded of nothing quite so much as “A Muppet Christmas Carol.” My familiarity with the original Dickens novel, in this case, is nowhere near as good as it is with that of Ebenezer Scrooge, so I can’t comment on how closely this story hews to the written word (although my understanding is, not hugely), but the comedic tone of the proceedings, the way characters flit in and out only to reappear later, and the general exuberance of it all, is most definitely Muppets-esque.

Starring Dev Patel as our David Copperfield, the film, written by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, is told as flashback, with Copperfield delivering his history to an audience. We are, most definitely, to understand the entire movie as not necessarily the truth—and certainly not the whole truth—but at least the truth as much as Copperfield sees it and chooses to tell it.

The result, perhaps intentionally and perhaps not, is a very self-centered and not terribly insightful story. It is, at the same time, wonderfully thrilling, visualized in lovely fashion, and brilliantly acted, but the Copperfield to which we are treated is a man who, apparently without ever realizing, uses so many of those around him, allowing their misery to promote his fortune.

This is most obvious with the movie’s villain, Uriah Heep (portrayed with perfection by Ben Whishaw). When we first see Heep, he is working at a school which Copperfield attends. Copperfield, who is full of incredible metaphors, spins a few about Heep, none flattering, in order to gain friends in his new locale. In fact, Copperfield is boorish in his approach to Heep, and while there may be an inkling of fear about him that he could get caught being horrible, Copperfield never truly grapples with his utter lack of humanity in regards to Heep. Instead, as Heep is a villain, the movie gets to press forward – it is okay that Copperfield is wretched in regards to Heep up front because Heep is proven a villain later.

As presented, however, there is certainly a chance that if Copperfield and everyone at the school had been nice to this man, Heep may not have treated Copperfield and company poorly in return. But, this is a comedy and Copperfield is our hero and so the movie doesn’t concern itself with such issues.

For himself, the result of Copperfield’s awfulness in regards to Heep is the friendship of Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard). An incredibly troubled individual, Copperfield may have some regrets about what happens to Steerforth over the course of the film, but really only ever sees the man in relation to himself, and not even about what he, Copperfield, might learn about the nature of humanity vis-à-vis Steerforth’s life, but rather only how Steerforth’s life affects Copperfield directly.

There are other individuals with whom Copperfield has a more full relationship and whose actions do teach Copperfield about being a better person and helping others, but the instances are tossed off with the same lack of depth as everything else. It feels like nothing so much as a series of moments, of sketches, and rather than spending any amount of time with the obvious morals present, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” would choose, instead, to move on to another madcap adventure. It is “The Muppet Show” as Dickens and even The Muppets went further than that. Yes, The Muppets’ take on Dickens is more fulfilling than what Iannucci offers.

Beyond that, as the movie is Copperfield telling the story to a packed audience and profiting off of the people in the tale, there is a serious question as to the worth of Copperfield’s beneficial actions. Without question, Copperfield is monetizing them.

At the same time, it would be foolhardy on my part to not acknowledge some of the incredible whimsy present herein. Those metaphors which Copperfield spouts are things of immense beauty; even when they are put to ill-use, they are brilliantly clever. The film also sports a wondrous array of actors, including: Gwendoline Christie, Peter Capaldi, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Darren Boyd, Daisy May Cooper, Paul Whitehouse, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton. There is almost a sense that the movie must rush from one vignette to the next in order to keep various members of the cast popping up.

Watching “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” I will not lie, I found myself utterly entranced. Every movement from one element of the story to the next comes across as near perfection. Everyone who appears on screen creates an impression. Excluding Patel, who is incomparable, Capaldi may be the best, but not by a lot. Yes, Dev Patel is remarkable in both his funny and sad moments, even if the script never affords him the opportunity for the self-reflection which the movie professes to offer. He is next-level great. The sets and costumes and music all hit the exact right note. There is a deftness to the film which is admirable. But when the credits are over and you get a chance to breathe again, there is a definite, undeniable whiff of disappointment about the movie.

The highs here are incredibly great, but there is just too much that is overlooked or skirted around or ill-used. The level of whimsy certainly equals that of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” and many of the actors offer the exuberance of a Gonzo or a Fozzie or a Piggy, but that film feels more fleshed- (or felted-) out.


photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

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