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.