The Personal History of David Copperfield ⭐️½
My three word review: impaled by time.
What I remember most about reading Dickens, and it was a long, long time ago, was how amazing he was with characterization. A prodigy.
I don’t typically reread classic literature. It was something I was required to do in school — and though I enjoyed some of the reading, I didn’t like the study aspect — and, besides, I’ve been out of school forever. Since graduating from high school and leaving the city, I’ve yet to return. Not even for class reunions (argh, has it been that long?!). I think class reunions are a painful reminder that we’re all dying.
Anyway, doesn’t mean I find anything wrong with classic literature education, but there were other creative arts that fought for my attention at the time. It’s important to understand this to see the perspective.
Don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of literary classic vs. modern fiction, but if any writer wants to learn how to create characters, you can’t go wrong with Dickens and Stephen King as mentors. If you want artful description, read Ray Bradbury (legend!). Screenplay dialogue? Rod Serling is almost unmatched for TV. Could go on and on with writer recommendations, but we’re here to talk about this movie.
Yes, the movie.
It successfully captures the whimsiness and unique characters from Dickens novel, but there’s so much it leaves on the table. I don’t necessarily blame the filmmakers, it’s soooooo hard to condense a 358,000 word novel into two hours. I’d argue with such lofty material as this that’s it’s nearly impossible.
What else is good? The set design is outstanding.
For production designer Cristina Casali, the biggest challenge in creating the backdrop was selecting the various English locations, from the Dover seaside and the Canterbury countryside to London’s period streetscapes. Keeping in mind the filmmaker’s desire for fresh looks that reflect the multicultural times of the present, Casali notes, “We knew right from the start we wanted it to be a truer picture of the 1850s, which was slightly early in the Victorian era.” As a result, the designer looked to the lighter, more colorful interiors of the Georgian period that preceded it, which was a perfect antidote to the often subdued and somber looks of Victorian England.The Personal History of David Copperfield Is a Contemporary Take on the Dickens Classic | Architectural Digest
From here, as with all these review compilations and critiques we’re traveling deep into SPOILER territory. If you haven’t seen the film and want to, it is best to return afterwards.
.. you’ve been warned, SPOILERS ahead …
Not enough time to tell the story
Novel adaptations are difficult to do well. Particularly works as deep and long as Dickens’ famous work. My biggest problem with this movie is it was like seeing a bunch of interesting people in the lobby of the movie theater and that’s it. We see the people, but we don’t get to see them breathe, to live beyond their most basic setup.
Call me greedy, but I wanted more of these characters doing more than they had screen time available to do.
This project should have been a TV series, not a movie. It could have been so much more with these amazing, wonderful characters.
Instead, it’s all rushed and there’s not enough time for characters to spread their wings and fly. 358,000 words made up the novel, that’s like 4+ novels today (most novels are around 75,000-100,000 words these days, Stephen King and some others aside). We’re supposed to believe this content can be compressed into a two hour movie? Nope.
A lot of critic reviews are good — some amazingly good — for this movie. I guess they remember a different Dickens novel than me. Or they were awarding stars for capturing the essence, the spirit of the book, but not the overall adventure of the story.
The book poured through Copperfield’s life in great detail and those he encountered, as well as commentary of the social ills of the times. It took a hard look at child labor, diversity, discrimination and other deep topics.
The movie addresses many of these, yes, and bonus points for the diverse cast, but it only has time to land on your hand like a fly, and then buzz away. It can’t stick around and make us feel what was wrong, the outrage that David Copperfield, the novel, channels. It makes the character just sort of a cog in the wheel, reporting on what happened.
Uriah Heep, for example, is so utterly sinister, but he’s almost a bit player in the movie. Yes, we see his evil from a distance, but we needed more than the movie could give us.
Maybe my memory of Dickens’ masterpiece is marred by the passing of time. I likely won’t read the book again, but who knows? Some books, like that one, are read once, remember for a lifetime. Given that sounds good in theory, but in reality the passing of time is making my memory cloudier on the substance. The movie did slightly interest me in re-reading the book.
I’m not a staunch believer that books are always being better than the movie, but I think in this case there will likely never be a movie that does this particular book justice. A miniseries, heck a full TV series, yes.
The movie brought back memories, for that I’m grateful. I’m not going to award a bunch of stars for reinvoking some of the reading experience, however. I must wonder if others have? That’s their right, of course.
That upsidedown boathouse, oh yeah!
It’s worth mentioning again that I loved the set design, costumes and effort put into the background details. We love the beach, so a house made out of an upside down boat would be the place to spend some time.
All the sets are well done. The attention to detail is there. Despite the movie story being underwhelming, the design deserves notice and attention.
Why such a low rating?
Ratings are an imperfect science, we’ve covered this in great detail here, so no sense retreading that discussion: How All Movie Review Rating Systems Are Flawed
If I were rating this movie on my emotion toward the original source material and the effort put in by the cast, crew and creatives I’d give it more like 3.5 stars, but effort isn’t the primary factor in our rating system. It’s based on the overall entertainment we derived from the viewing experience which very much includes the story. The story is what glues everything together along with characters, settings, sounds and the like. The story this movie was based on was crazy good, but the story portrayed here was rushed, incomplete and lacking the necessary emotional depth to captivate and entertain us.
Is it really only 1.5 stars? Bad? For us, yes, it was. We go see movies for stories and characters, not only one or the other. I respect the other critics and their opinions, but this isn’t a good movie. It’s a great group of clever, inventive characters and scenes but the sum of the parts just doesn’t gel.
It’s like a musical take on a story, only without the singing and dancing. Think I might have preferred this as a musical, in fact, sort of like Rocketman meets David Copperfield.
Anyway, onto what others think. You’ll quickly see that our opinion is in the film critics minority. As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes critics show this movie as 93% fresh (!), while the audience — hey, that’s us, too, by the way — show it as 55%. This is yet another case where we don’t side with major critics. Not sure what that makes us, but will leave that up to readers to decide.
Reviews by Others
Here we go for The Personal History of David Copperfield?
- After Misery (3.5/5): “Nothing to fuss about in five years but bloody good time, ya know.”
- Anika’s Antics (4.5/5): “Go see this one. It will lighten your heart.”
- Berning Away: “Not quite the stuffy traditional production one might expect with such a revered text, but there is a bit of joy in the overall presentation. Iannucci takes a unique approach to the material and delivers an entertaining movie aided by his rather exuberant cast. It is keyed to his unique sense of humour and that may be an issue to some viewers.”
- CJ / Film Mafia: “While there’s inherent political content in Copperfield, mainly to do with class, this marks a departure for Iannucci: it’s practically devoid of cynicism. Instead, it’s full of heart, perhaps not a quality much associated with Britain’s greatest satirist, until now. I loved it.”
- Dan Bullock / critical popcorn (4/5): “This is a true journey and I found it both fantastic and fascinating throughout.”
- Don Kaye / Den of Geek: “Living the best life you can under arduous circumstances is a lesson that just about all of us can appreciate, even without the world being on fire, and Iannucci clearly had no idea what kind of world he’d be bringing into his David Copperfield, the first time the story has been told on the big screen in 51 years, although there have been numerous TV editions. While it may not be the definitive edition of the tale, it’s very likely the one we could use right now.”
- Dyl’s Movie Stuff (7/10): “Every single actor brings their A-game to this well-directed, quirky take on Dickens in The Personal History of David Copperfield.”
- Eddie / Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys): “It may not be quite up to the high-standards of the best Dicken’s features but The Personal History of David Copperfield is a joyous little film with a lot of heart and a killer on-song cast to boot.”
- Film & Food / Madeline Rayner (3/5): “There aren’t the laugh out loud moments in this movie that I expected, but it was entertaining nevertheless.”
- Jules Movie Reviews: “A fun “Dickensian” romp sketching out a remarkable life well lived, populated with flamboyant characters played by a talented cast clearly enjoying themselves.”
- Kirkham A Movie A Day: “For a complicated story, the film is paced pretty well. I do think that the opening section with the awful Mr. Murdstone needed to fleshed out a bit more, but perhaps the youthful Copperfield isn’t where the writer found the most joy in the story. If you are able to see the film, by all means do so.”
- Lee Butler / Movie Meister Reviews (4/5): “When The Personal History of David Copperfield is firing on all cylinders, it’s a joyous little film that’s engaging as hell. A great retelling of some classic material, belonging up there with the recent Little Women in terms of classic stories being adapted for a modern audience.”
- Mark Hobin / Fast Film Reviews: “It’s fitfully charming as a whole. Take my positive appraisal with a grain of salt. I confess I have never read the book, nor seen any production of the work. I do not worship the source. However, I know what’s entertaining and this breezy movie certainly is that.”
- Movies Unchained (5/5): “This may appear like yet another quirky period comedy with a large cast giving bombastic performances, but there’s absolutely no doubt that The Personal History of David Copperfield is something incredibly special in every conceivable way, and an absolute delight of a film that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible.”
- Mr. Movies (Grade: A): “To say that I felt something for The Personal History of the David Copperfield would be one hell of an understatement. For reasons I couldn’t place in the moment, I would just weep at the beauty of Dev Patel and his performance of the wonderful character, all within such a wonderful film.”
- Murdocal: “I felt greedy watching this film. It’s so well-made, well-acted, and well-scripted. It felt like too good a film to be watching. I had so much fun and genuinely never wanted it to end.”
- Pastor Greenbean: “The movie is rated PG and is really safe for the whole family. I would like to see it nominated for best picture.”
- Reenie / The Fangirl’s Dilemma: “What’s most fascinating about the film, to me though, is how it feels like play. Most of the characters have only one costume, the performances and broad and straight faced, and with the exception of Jairaj Varsani as young David, no one is aged, despite the story taking place over a lifetime.”
- Tommy Girard: “…may not be a blatant gut punch in the way of the satirical and dark The Death Of Stalin but, in a way, feels like it’s whimsical and fun younger sibling sharing certain stylistic flourishes and tones while showing Iannucci is far more than ‘just’ a serious political filmmaker and capable of delivering a good fun couple of hours with a suitable extra depth if you want to find it.”
- tensecondsfromnow / film-authority.com: “As always with Dickens on film, incident and narrative pile up due to the difficulty of selecting the key points of the narrative; Copperfield’s friendship with the eccentric Mr Pip (Hugh Laurie) is arguably the most endearing element “Form a Q’ says Dick as he invites the young man to aid him in some typography; there’s plenty of clever word-play here, although the casually-defined caricatures lack the depth that an expansive tv series can bring.”
- Dewey’s Movies: “While The Personal History of David Copperfield is both warm and witty, the film itself feels incomplete. The film feels like we are getting the cliff note version of a fully realized piece—an average experience for what could have been”
- Griff’s Picks (Grade: C+): “As much as The Personal History of David Copperfield captures a certain pulsating, free-flowing wit and whimsy, it still occasionally falls into its own rushed shortcomings.”
- Kathy / Access Bollywood: “The pace of the narrative forces David to speed through many of the significant events of his life before they’re able to make much emotional impact. Highs give way to lows and back to highs, all covered in a layer of wackiness that keeps the audience at an emotional distance.”
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Other movie review compilations soon to be posted include:
- Tenet (2020, week #36)
- The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020, week #37)
- Infidel (2020, week #38)
All new movies watched in theaters have review compilation posts like this one created.
Happy movie watching!