It’s hard to know where to begin with The Personal History of David Copperfield. There’s a lot to write about: it’s a Charles Dickens adaptation with the silliness factor cranked up, it was directed by the political satirist who gave us The Death of Stalin, it features commendably colorblind casting, and it’s not a biopic about a magician. There are over 600 pages of peak Dickens crammed into this two-hour movie, so if you’re familiar with the novel, don’t expect all of it to have made it into the adaptation. If you’re not familiar with the novel, you’re about to be.
David Copperfield—or, if you’re using Dickens’ full title, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)—is considered by many, including Dickens himself, to be his finest work. The story uses Dickens’ life as a jumping-off point for all sorts of fantastical tales. For example, it contains the autobiographical detail of Dickens/Copperfield being forced into child labor, but it also sees the protagonist living under a capsized boat by the sea, which did not (as far as we know) actually happen. In the fashion of fiction, you’ll find that the happier details are usually the fabricated ones.
The Personal History of David Copperfield latches onto these happier notes with alacrity. It’s a colorful film, full of beautifully realized sets and outrageous costume design that would make the most precocious theater kids blush. The direction has similar flourishes, though they’re more sparingly used, limited to fancy transitions and eye candy that bookend the ostensible “chapters” of the story. Director Armando Iannucci prefers to keep the presence of the camera reigned in, dodging the sleek blandness of the Hollywood style but never swinging the pendulum towards cinematography that would distract from the performers within the shots. The whole affair has the energy of a high-end stage play. It would surely be playing at The London Palladium had Iannucci chosen that route.
And watching this production with a large crowd would certainly be something, if just for the chorus of laughs. Iannucci had good reason not to distract from his cast: the performances are uniformly delightful, and the bigger names seem to be having a charisma competition with their side characters. Watching Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Hugh Laurie bounce their wacky personas off of each other is as hilarious as you’d imagine. Even surrounded by these veterans, Dev Patel keeps the spotlight firmly on his title role, bringing an infectious enthusiasm to every scene and blowing up his body language to match the excess of the film’s tone.
It’s doubly a shame, then, that the screenplay does so wrong by David Copperfield. The movie is simply too much, too fast to flesh out his character—an instructive example of shoving a novel through too thin a funnel. The Personal History of David Copperfield has so little breathing room that CPR-trained rescuers would be wise to stand by. It chugs through the main events of Dickens’ novel in such a rush, dispensing big moments with such machine-like efficiency, that the character of David Copperfield can only react to what’s happening around him. If the plot shoves him into something elating, he’s elated; if he gets punched in the face, he’s hurt. There’s no time for anything but broad strokes. Replace Copperfield with any other good-hearted fellow and you’d have the same movie.
The hasty pile-up of events wears the viewer down just as much. It’s that specific kind of boring where there’s so much going on but so little time for it to sink in that it eventually just washes over you like anesthesia. And if you choose to risk your life (and the lives of your loved ones) to watch it in a theater during a pandemic, you may be seeing an actual anesthesiologist sooner than you think. There may be a lot to write about The Personal History of David Copperfield, but there’s not a lot to write home about.