Armando Iannucci’s period piece is a charming yet incoherent film that hold commercial potential but lacks artistic risks
In a departure from his more satirical work (In the Loop) that has helped him get a well-deserved breakthrough in the industry thanks to risky material and unconventional narrative approaches, Armando Iannucci opts for a more conventional film in THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, a charming, if not remarkable, depiction of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel about growing up amidst, or rather despite of, hardship.
Tracking the rise, fall and ultimate triumph of David Copperfield (played affectionately by Dev Patel), the film features a terrific cast who bring Dickens’ sophisticated characters to life with unexpected wit, delight and charm. Born shortly after the death of his father, David is separated from his mother by his stepfather Edward Murdstone and is sent off on a journey of self discovery and maturity. When he receives news that his mother has passed away, he resorts to his eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood (played impeccably by an always terrific Tilda Swinton). Along the way, David meets new people, experiences loss and poverty, success and fame and later on decides to capture all such vivid experiences in an autobiographical novel.
One of the film’s strongest points is its dialogue and Iannucci’s decision to lighten up the material and deliver a somewhat more comedic, optimistic tone to what could have veered into sentimentality. Instead of a grim story about survival and triumphing over adversity, hatred and unfairness, Iannucci pivots Dickens’ typical dramatic tropes and attempts to create something unique.
But the film comes off as a mixed bag of sorts – while the dialogue is witty and frequently funny, and the performances strong across the board, the film never quite soars. It remains somewhat toothless, somewhat unremarkable even if entertaining and well made. When the story comes together at the end, the lasting impact is less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps because the story has been told and re-told multiple times that it makes sense to wonder why Iannucci has selected it as a followup to his wildly inventive fare, and perhaps it’s his attempt to create something far more accessible and commercial. In broadening his material to reach the wider public, COPPERFIELD holds strong potential with general audiences especially those seeking feel-good stories that spark some positivity and inspiration in the middle of a constantly negative news cycle and an overload of superhero films. But from an artistic standpoint, the film lacks the punch and uniqueness that has made Iannucci’s one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
Technical credits are strong, particularly the sublime production design and costumes which add vivid color to the screen and convincingly build worlds of hope and despair. The film’s cinematography and affecting score work to heighten audience engagement throughout.
Verdict: A solid but unremarkable retelling of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic with mixed results. Thanks to standout performances and excellent production qualities, it should hold strong commercial potential when it debuts in theatres next year.