TIFF 2019: The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci, 2019, UK/USA)

            The Personal History of David Copperfield represents a softer turn for Armando Iannucci, who is perhaps best known as the poet of profanity behind such shows as The Thick of It and Veep. The result is a curious mixture of satire and sentimentality, often fluctuating between the two in close succession. Copperfield is a mixed bag, albeit an entertaining one. 
            While I’m not particularly familiar with the Dickens novel, I had the sense from watching the film that the script – by Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell – is remarkably faithful to the source text. Of course, it is a challenge for any writer to cram 600 pages of story into a two-hour film. While the film maintains strong pacing throughout most of its run – faltering in the final act – it nevertheless feels as though it might have been better executed as a series than as a film. The rapid jumps between the different stages of Copperfield’s life happen so abruptly that the film begins to feel disjointed, and we lose sight of Copperfield’s development as a character.
            That the film manages to feel cohesive is more due to Dev Patel’s enthusiastic portrayal of the titular character than the script. He manages to convincingly express the loves, pains, joys, and rages of an entire young man’s life within the span of two hours. He largely plays off of the film’s supporting cast, comprised of a who’s who of great British actors, including Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Tilda Swinton.
            Hugh Laurie is by far the highlight of the film. His take on the somewhat demented Mr. Dick is both hilarious and moving in equal turns. His performance also seems most in line with the overall tone of Iannucci’s film – quirky yet wholesome. Iannucci’s quirkiness does not always work. The extended courtship of Copperfield and his love Dora Spenlow becomes so quirky that it verges on irritating. 
            The production design, sets, and score all give the film a whimsical quality that elevates the adaptation and makes it feel grand in scope. Even as the story falters – which it does in the final act – these elements still make the film a pleasurable watch. And while the sentimental finale does not quite resonate in the way that it should, this Copperfield is a breezy way to spend two hours in another world.



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