Truncated ‘Copperfield’ is fun but not quite a classic

Enjoying a pleasant outing are (from left): Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), David Copperfield (Dev Patel), Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar).

By Richard Ades

As luck would have it, I watched The Personal History of David Copperfield just weeks after rereading the original novel for the first time in decades.

The timing turned out to be a mixed blessing.

It made it easier to keep up with the dozens of characters who appear in even this condensed version of Charles Dickens’s rambling classic. But it also made it clear that director/co-scripter Armando Iannucci has trimmed more than length off the story. He’s also trimmed most of the drama and even much of the comedy.

To be sure, Dickens wrote a fair amount of padding into David Copperfield—probably for financial reasons, as it first appeared in serial form. But the length allowed him to create an engrossing, semiautobiographical tale of a life filled with tragedies, triumphs and, most of all, indelible characters.  

In Iannucci’s defense, nothing short of a miniseries could have done the novel justice. Since he limited himself to a two-hour running time, he settled for a fast-paced and colorful encapsulation of the story tied together with narration delivered by an adult version of the title character (Dev Patel).

Like the novel, the film begins with his birth to a young widow (Morfydd Clark) on the night his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) pays an unexpected visit—and subsequently leaves when the baby disappoints her by being a boy. With the help of two adorable actors (Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsanji) who portray David as a youth, it then recounts the bad luck that befalls him when his mother marries the dictatorial Murdstone (Darren Boyd).

Soon running afoul of his stepfather’s sour temper, David is exiled to a London bottling factory, where he toils his way into adulthood. It’s only after a family tragedy that he finally rebels, running away and throwing himself on the mercy of the aunt he’s never met. When Betsey mercifully takes him in, he at last finds himself on the road to happiness and success, though his journey will be marked by setbacks and detours galore.

David (Dev Patel) delivers a lecture on the story of his life.

With an Englishman of Indian descent playing David, it’s obvious that the film is employing nontraditional casting. For example, it makes no attempt to explain why Betsey’s financial adviser, Mr. Whitfield (Benedict Wong), is Asian, but his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) is Black. This kind of colorblind casting is more common in modern theater than in film, but most viewers will quickly catch on.

What may be more puzzling to fans of the novel is why some characters seem so divorced from their literary counterparts. One is David’s former schoolmate, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who bears no resemblance to the dangerously handsome and effortlessly popular aristocrat Dickens describes. Nor does the film’s Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) look anything like the book’s cadaverous conniver.

Of course, those unfamiliar with the book won’t notice such things. On the other hand, they might notice that the film never engages their emotions all that much. It just doesn’t have time to develop the personal tragedies or interpersonal relationships that might have sucked them in.

The flick is a little better at reflecting some of Dickens’s most obvious comedy: Aunt Betsey’s ongoing feud with donkeys, or the kingly obsession that bedevils her friend Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Subtler humor, though, is missing.

With an engaging cast and a breezy style, David Copperfield is a pleasant enough diversion. It’s only in comparison to its source material that it falls short.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG) opens Aug. 28 at select theaters.

Psychoanalyzing the most powerful man on earth

By Richard Ades

Political commentators have spent nearly four years trying to understand why Donald Trump spreads lies, ignores constitutional norms and otherwise fails to act like the president of the United States. In a new documentary by Dan Partland, mental health experts take on the challenge. (Visit the Free Press website for the rest of this review of #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump.)

Teaching self-respect one drumbeat at a time

River City Drummers
Members of Louisville’s River City Drum Corp hold forth in a typically spirited number.

By Richard Ades

“Black arts matter!” Ed “Nardie” White declares early in River City Drumbeat. That’s the central message of the documentary, which focuses on the institution White created nearly three decades ago to help young African Americans forge their own future.

The River City Drum Corp teaches Louisville youngsters how to make and play drums in routines featuring African-inspired rhythms and spirited choreography. But the group’s real purpose, it’s clear, is to give them a sense of purpose and a sense of direction when it comes to mapping out their lives.

Several scenes explain the real dangers these kids face growing up in neighborhoods with a liquor store on each corner and nearly omnipresent gunfire. In the saddest of these, White recalls the granddaughter he was unable to save from a dangerous lifestyle that resulted in her senseless death.

Directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatte, the 94-minute documentary unfolds in a style that sometimes seems slow and meandering. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with insights into the philosophy that inspired White through the years—and in turn has inspired many of the youngsters who fell under his influence.

River City Drumbeat White
Ed “Nardie” White founded the River City Drum Corp nearly three decades ago.

Spread chronologically over several months, the film follows White as he prepares to turn over his leadership role to one of those grownup youngsters: Albert Shumake, a deejay who is willing to reorder his life to keep the group going. In the process, we learn about the important role White’s late wife, Zambia, played in both men’s lives. It was she who served as Albert’s cheerleader when a teacher told him he would never amount to anything, and it was she who convinced White that the drum group was too important to abandon.

By introducing us to some of the ensemble’s soon-to-be former members—all of them high school seniors with college in their sights—the film demonstrates that Zambia was right.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

River City Drumbeat may be streamed from Aug. 14 through Sept. 10 via Columbus’s Wexner Center ( A 72-hour rental is $12. For other viewing opportunities, visit

A burned-out town struggles to return to life

A firefighter faces the deadly Camp Fire in an early scene from Rebuilding Paradise.

By Richard Ades

The first 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are harrowing.

Ron Howard’s documentary is mostly about the aftermath of the November 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, but first it shows us the fire itself. With the help of cellphone and dashcam footage, it recreates people’s terror as they attempt to escape a wildfire that engulfed their town only minutes after originating on a nearby hillside.

In one particularly hair-raising moment, we find ourselves inside a vehicle barreling along a road that has turned into a fiery obstacle course. Meanwhile, the air is so filled with smoke that the day appears to have turned to night.

The danger is real, we learn. By the time the fire is brought under control, 85 residents of Paradise are dead. Of those who survive, most have lost their homes, along with schools, municipal buildings and services.

Following this terror-stricken beginning, Howard’s documentary evolves into a month-by-month account of attempts by residents and officials to revive a community that has been largely destroyed. The result is a film that’s sincere and warmhearted.

And, it must be said, just a little dull.

Part of the problem is Howard’s focus on what a close-knit and beautiful community Paradise was, which made its loss so tragic. Though it undoubtedly was beautiful, being located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s hard for those of us who never lived there to share the residents’ nostalgia.

Then again, let’s face it: A big part of the film’s problem is its timing. Much as we want to be sympathetic to the day-to-day challenges faced by the survivors, we can’t help being reminded of our own day-to-day challenges due to a health disaster that shows no signs of winding down.

This is particularly difficult when the film focuses on the tireless efforts of school superintendent Michelle John to keep local classes in session and to give the 2019 seniors a bona fide graduation ceremony. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help thinking that it’s all for naught because the following school year will be 10 times as difficult in Paradise and everywhere else.

Howard also tries a bit too hard to show individuals’ community spirit and even heroism. Or maybe it just seems that way because of our own, mid-2020 perspective. Having witnessed some of our own fellow citizens refusing to even slap on a mask to promote the general good, we know all too well that not everyone reacts to disaster in a selfless way.

Is the film looking at the Camp Fire aftermath with rose-colored glasses? The question comes up in relation to one of its most heroic figures, Matt Gates, a police officer who works to raise spirits through efforts such as organizing a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Then, late in the film, we suddenly learn that Gates and his wife have separated. Why? We’re never told, maybe because Howard doesn’t want to tinge his warm portrait of the town with a hint of negativism.

In a break from the general positivity, Rebuilding Paradise points out that there are culprits here as well as victims. The main culprit is Pacific Gas & Electric, whose failure to maintain its power lines caused the spark that set off the deadly fire. More generally, the culprit is poor forest management, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires due to young growth that burns quickly.

More generally still, as the film notes briefly, the culprit is climate change. Yet no fingers are pointed at those who’ve ignored the problem and have even gone out of their way to deny it exists.

To pick out the most obvious example: Donald Trump is shown talking about his post-fire visit to the town—which he accidentally calls “Pleasure”—but the film doesn’t report his odd theory that wildfires like this could be prevented if California just raked out the forest floors once in a while. Nor does it mention the administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine environmental regulations.

Perhaps the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is afraid of unnecessarily aggravating the Trump administration. Or perhaps director Howard is more interested in the personal rather than the political. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of loss, courage and perseverance that—due to reasons both in and beyond the filmmaker’s control—comes off as needlessly bland.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Rebuilding Paradise (PG-13) is available beginning July 31 through VOD outlets or Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (