Film & TV

A Punch in the Dickens

Dev Patel in the The Personal History of David Copperfield. (Dean Rogers/Twentieth Century Fox)

Merging the talents of Armando Iannucci, the master of ornate R-rated invective, and Charles Dickens, a writer with a capacious soul and a graceful wit, promises to be interesting, or at least weird.

“I saw no shadow of another parting from that sweaty minge box.”

“In case you’re as up to date as a Gregorian calendar, you sorry hack bitchface, what I want is, facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. You c**t.”

Iannucci, who fired curare-tipped arrows of hate in every direction on his BBC political series The Thick of It, its big-screen spin-off In the Loop, and its American cousin Veep, later proved able fluently to translate his putdowns into Communist in The Death of Stalin. But now he has put down his weapons, wiped his bloody hands on his shirt, and set about trying to bake us all a nice sponge cake: His latest is a more or less earnest adaptation of Dickens’s most delightful novel, here called The Personal History of David Copperfield. Does it work? In the words of one of Iannucci’s characters, it goes about as smoothly as a sweaty octopus trying to take off a bra.

In the age of impressive television serials, it’s a baffling choice to try to cram Dickens’s 280,000-word novel into less than two hours of screen time. What’s the point? Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell fast-forward through the book, tarting it up with cinematic frippery and enlisting their pals to play supporting roles with sitcom shtick. In 1999, the BBC did a two-part, three-hour take on the novel starring a larval Daniel Radcliffe as David, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber, and Maggie Smith as Betsey Trotwood. It was glorious, and you can watch it on Amazon Prime Video or Hulu. Iannucci’s take is, by contrast, as lifeless as Uriah Heep. (Incidentally, the most duplicitous redhead since Judas is played under a Moe Howard mop of brown hair by Ben Whishaw, and as a redhead I take umbrage. Why are they trying to erase us and our proud record of making mischief?)

Iannucci’s organizing idea seems to have been to go postmodern, but stop halfway. He brings in Dev Patel, who has proven to be a bland disappointment since his charming lead turn in Slumdog Millionaire, to play David with wide eyes and a bright smile and a total absence of personality. He’s part of a sort-of multicultural casting experiment with no particular thematic resonance; random characters are played by minorities but most are played by white Britons. Tilda Swinton, as his kindly, donkey-hating aunt Betsey Trotwood; Hugh Laurie, as her mentally challenged but gently appealing cousin Mr. Dick; and Peter Capaldi, as the ever-genial and perpetually broke Mr. Micawber, give lumbering, broadly comic performances that strain for laughs instead of settling into the key of restrained drollery in which Dickens composed so brilliantly. That Patel looks old enough to play his character’s father when the latter works at a blacking factory is one of many odd moments.

Iannucci is primarily a writer and has spent the bulk of his career in sitcoms, whose shooting schedules don’t allow for much in the way of visual experimentation. In his mid-50s, though, he has suddenly turned as frisky as a film-school student, haphazardly throwing in pieces of flair without any coherent strategy. A framing device situates the entire movie as a theatrical monologue, but within the movie people’s thoughts keep getting projected on walls like movies. Iannucci is also eager to remind us that David is a novelist, which means random phrases from the book keep appearing as titles on the screen.

The connecting thread is that this is all just storytelling, but you don’t need to keep emphasizing that via three different methods. And the subtext of Dickens’s artifice — which is that the novelist was massaging his own public image, knowing that he was a bit of a bastard in real life — seems to escape Iannucci. Copperfield is, famously, an autobiographically informed novel in which Dickens over-sentimentalized his experience and created a stand-in without a blemish, whereas its darker successor Great Expectations, published a decade later, after the novelist had abandoned his wife for an 18-year-old actress, told a similar but more mature story through the eyes of a hero with a few nicks and flaws.

Copperfield’s bright, cheery, generous spirit is not a language Iannucci speaks, and he stumbles through the material like a half-prepared student attempting to translate a text in a tongue he has barely studied enough to order a meal. Iannucci is mainly interested in stringing together jokes, but he mangles them too. The movie’s comic energy is such that it could have been written by the dour, awkward Uriah himself, the kind of guy who explains, “I’ve been attempting to learn gentlemen’s humor from a book.”