TIFF 2019: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Weaves a Tale of Empty Whimsy

by Christopher Cross
Published: Last Updated on

While films like In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, along with shows like The Thick of It and Veep, have put Armando Iannucci at the forefront of political satire, he also seems to have pigeonholed himself. The Personal History of David Copperfield feels at times like it’s Iannucci trying to figure out how to write about life itself — without poking fun at it, but just telling it from memory. At the heart of his latest film, he brings together an incredibly diverse and hilarious cast to tell a fairly mundane story, smother it with whimsy, and make a plea for living life even when it gets too hard.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last component is exactly where Iannucci’s screenplay works. In between all the moments of David Copperfield’s (Dev Patel) life there are highs and lows. Those lows aggravate Copperfield, and yet he persists. Surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, Copperfield spends his life deciding who is and isn’t a parasite, sometimes trusting too much while others trust too little. It’s in these interactions that we get some of the best characters brought to life from the Charles Dickens novel this film is based on. Whether it’s the thoughts of King Charles I trapped in the mind of the easily distracted Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), or his cousin, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who wards off donkeys from her front lawn with no exceptions, there are a thousand characters to love in this adaptation.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Many of the characters in The Personal History of David Copperfield are honestly just good people who either make the best of what they’ve got, or strive to have better than they’ve got. It’s only in Uriah Heep (played deliciously by Ben Whishaw) that a cartoonishly evil character is found to impede Copperfield’s joy from life. However, no one is coming to a Iannucci movie not expecting a plethora of funny characters, and it is no real shock to find that he has assembled a cast more than capable of bringing his wit to life. Where it all starts falling apart is in how the story is told. Cartoonish or not, these people all feel torn out of a storybook — which just so happens to be the way the film is presented as well, with Copperfield telling a story of his life to an audience with transitions between scenes that feel like pages of a book being flipped. It’s all very reminiscent of how Joe Wright handles his storytelling, especially in films like Anna Karenina.

That method of storytelling is fine as an ambitious framing device, especially in the pantheon of Iannucci’s work. However, it forces the story to move at a more rapid pace, and if there’s one thing that none of his prior works have had, it’s an emphasis on the narrative. The story here feels propelled forward because it’s time to move onto the next vignette, whereas his previous works relied on incremental movement and small plot details snowballing into a bigger catastrophe. Brief skips in time happen frequently enough that it never feels like the proper amount of time is ever spent with any character other than David Copperfield, but this does make some sense, since most of Copperfield’s memories of people are through silly things they say or vivid, fantastical interactions, as opposed to the more mundane elements.

Unfortunately, The Personal History of David Copperfield just doesn’t land as hard as it should by the time it concludes. It’s breezy and whimsical in all the right ways, but dampens almost all of the other elements of the screenplay. Instead, the film opts for a more standard period piece that just so happens to have a few really good jokes woven in there for good measure. Come for the lively cast and characters, as well as Patel’s fantastic performance; everything else just falls flat by the end, leaving the story to wrap up without any real emotional resonance for the audience.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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