Dickens enthusiasts can breathe a sigh of relief: Armando Iannucci has not turned their beloved novel into an R-rated barrage of f-bombs, a trait which has so defined his filmmaking career that one of the audience members at my screening referred to it as making “symphony from swears.” This is his family-friendly gift to the naysayers who thought he could never move away from profanity-laced comedy, and I think they will be some of the people most pleased with this endeavour. Iannucci derives charm here completely from the source text, which is (as is the case with any Dickens novel) chock-full of zany personalities and lovable rogues, ranging from the donkey-averse Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her muddleheaded companion Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), to the simpering sycophant Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and mischievous moocher Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi). If you’ve read the novel, these characters will feel as if they’ve leapt right off the page, so true are they to the spirit of Dickens’ prose. In terms of visual flourishes, Iannucci adds a meta malleability to the proceedings, using self-referential transitions like collapsing backdrops and aggressive fades to denote the fact that, yes, this is a tightly condensed adaptation of a 900-page novel. We are always being reminded that Iannucci is trying not to waste a minute of his runtime, and because he does it in good faith and humour, purists will be hard-pressed to complain about what he does leave out.
Its brisk and lively qualities make the movie a pleasurable experience, and when coupled with the non-traditional casting that allows for several talented POC actors to take centre stage, one can see value in a venture like this—even if, in all honesty, there isn’t much else to justify an umpteenth Dickens adaptation. In fact, when you set aside its inherent entertainment value, The Personal History of David Copperfield can’t help but come off as an inconsequential amuse-bouche in a career that has, up until this point, been built on the most astringent political satires imaginable. It’s an inoffensive, well-intentioned detour that certainly adds variety to Iannucci’s filmography, though when I walked out of the theatre I really couldn’t say why it needed to exist. And I’m positive I won’t be the only one.
In his introduction, Iannucci claimed the film extolled the power of community, and that is certainly a major aspect of Dickens’ work. David Copperfield can only ascend to his authorial role by way of the people around him who give him experiences to write about. Meanwhile, his writing proves to be so colourful because of his uncanny ability to mimic everyone’s speech patterns, tics and foibles. Artists, Dickens implicitly argues, cannot thrive without a support system, and it’s that support system that will also inspire their work. So, perhaps, one can justify Iannucci’s project as both a tribute to those who help artists reach their potential, as well as a call for even greater networks of cooperation to allow those artists to tell their stories at a time when their stories are most needed. Iannucci, seeing that another angry satire may not be the best solution for our current ills, decides to opt for something resolutely more hopeful, and I cannot fault him for it. I may not have gotten much out of this film, but I respect the fact that many others will see it as a needed curative.
The Personal History of David Copperfield received its world premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 5, 2019.