The Personal History of David Copperfield is probably one of the oddest films of January. Armando Iannucci, known for his TV show ‘The Thick of It’ and previous feature films ‘The Death of Stalin’ and ‘In The Loop’ returns with this adaption of Dickens but with his signature comedic twists painted firmly over it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that Copperfield goes into massive swearing and rants. Still, it does mean there is more of a focus on stupidity and wordplay, but it just doesn’t fit. It feels out of place, just like a lot of the film.
There are odd choices all over in particular editing and shot selection, most of which are jarring and all over the place. The film is a retelling of David Copperfield, a man who appears to have quite a life in Victorian England. He is continuously bumping into colourful characters and locations, jotting down different things that interest or amuse him that these people will say.
Because it is Copperfield telling the story to an audience, there is an attempt to have a fantastical atmosphere, like it is staged, which is where these odd choices come in. Some transitions are started from storms, blowing away facades to reveal a new location. Things like this all sound like they could be interesting and modern ways to move this dusty period comedy into the 21st century. Still, they feel out of place and over the top for the film. Like it is just forcing its way into the film, feeling completely unnatural.
This attempt to modernise also comes across in dialogue, obviously a stylistic choice that flops but nobody feels like a real human. I thought this was going to be revealed to be a Westworld style world full of weird robots that were poorly programmed to act as if they were Victorian. It is muddling and truly weird to witness.
Despite the kind nature of Copperfield, there is a real lack of engagement with the character. Dev Patel plays him in this telling of the story. While he charismatic enough to pull it off, he is always outshined by supporting characters. The particular standout for me being Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick, a man who believes that King Charles 1st soul now lives within him ever since the monarch was executed. For me, he provided the laughs whenever he was on screen, something the film sorely needed.
For an Iannucci comedy, the film isn’t where it should be in terms of laughs. I chuckled to myself a couple of times but was left disappointed. Other co-stars in the movie are Peter Capaldi and Tilda Swinton. They are usually good in comedic roles, fail to get their footing on a dull script and just left me feeling disappointed. Even if he wasn’t going for laughs, with biting sarcasm and satire that he is known for, there still isn’t much there.
It is a shame as my hopes were somewhat high. I enjoyed Iannucci’s previous work and look forward to watching his new TV series, which coincidentally features Hugh Laurie in the lead role. For now, we have the dud that is The Personal History of David Copperfield. A jumbled and modernised mess of a literature adaption that only attempts to be funny and very rarely succeeds.