With his latest directorial instalment, Armando Iannucci has attempted to transform Charles Dickens’ masterpiece David Copperfield into a satirical affair which discusses contemporary social issues. The results are mixed as there are moments of genuine warmth throughout, but there are equally numerous occasions when jokes fall flat and twists in the plot fail to create the level of emotional outpouring one would have expected. Iannucci’s unique style is partially to blame for this as his ironic humour, which had elevated The Death of Stalin so brilliantly, in this instance limits the emotional heft of the source material.
Admittedly, Dickens’ book is filled with satire, complementing the plethora of misfortunes David Copperfield is forced to overcome. Iannucci diverts from this mould, instead placing hilarity at the centre of the narrative which does temper the underlying social commentary the film seeks to provide. In a similar vein to Ken Loach’s most recent film Sorry We Missed You, The Personal History of David Copperfield deals with issues of class and wealth. However, while Loach examines poverty with considerable intensity, Iannucci’s fondness for comedic routine tends to diminish the political bite of the overall film. This can be seen in an early encounter when Copperfield is banished from his family home by his malignant stepfather and sent to work in a factory. While the early exchanges between fellow workers and Copperfield could have showcased the severity of this displacement, Iannucci instead chooses to focus upon jokes surrounding the height of the titular character and the comedic routine of one of the overseers. There is nothing wrong with a bit of comedy, but in this instance the incorporation of jokes inoculates a potential discussion on transgression between classes.
That is not to say that The Personal History of David Copperfield is unfunny, as there are plenty of scenes which create a genuine sense of delight. Once David flees his factory lodgings to his aunt in Dover, the story begins to feel more rooted and in turn gets funnier. This is largely due to the reintroduction of Tilda Swinton’s character Aunt Betsey who, as a woman with exceptional eccentricity, lightens many moments with remarks about her nephew’s gender and her genuine hatred towards donkeys.
The character served the best in the film is Uriah Heep, a menacing baggage boy who fiendishly liquidates Copperfield’s family. Ben Whishaw is a shining light as Heep – while many characters remain bland, Heep grows from a strange outsider into a despicable menace. Dev Patel deserves mention too, filling the role of Copperfield with charm and charisma aplenty. During moments of crippling debt, his sense of frustration and angst permeate throughout. The film is at its best when he spends time with Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), a man afflicted with apparitions of a beheaded king, as they share thoughts and free themselves from societal strains. The casting of Patel, along with other non-white actors in typically white roles is a very deliberate choice and serves the narrative well, accentuating the ways in which we as a country visualise class and racial conformity today.
David Copperfield is a dense book, spanning decades, and so the two-hour run time of the film does at times limit the scope of the narrative, especially regarding Copperfield’s love interests. Both Dora and Agnes, the two potential brides, remain rather bare in their character development which makes it difficult to care about who Copperfield ends up with. The run time also often makes the production feel rushed as characters are introduced before being quickly forgotten about, destined to appear on occasions without warning.
It feels as though the style of Iannucci doesn’t fully mesh with the narrative which Dickens set out. That is not to say that the novel is void of humour but rather that humour should not have been the centrepiece to this specific narrative. There is much to enjoy in The Personal History of David Copperfield but in the end, the confused tone of the film undermines the genuine emotion it leaves once the credits roll.
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