Armando Iannucci possesses one of the most exciting and brilliant comedic minds in film and television today. Iannucci’s achievements include such genre-defining satires as Veep, The Thick Of It, In The Loop, the Alan Partridge persona, and his recent knockout foray into larger-scale cinema, The Death of Stalin. All of these are outrageously funny, jaw-droppingly daring, delightfully spiky exercises in ripping apart Western society and exposing its most horrible (and horribly amusing) inner truths. He is without a doubt one of my personal favorite creative minds on the planet; his comedy is not simply full of whip-smart language and shatteringly funny punchlines, but consistently laced with truly ingenious insights into human nature, human folly, and the maddeningly complex pressures modern society places on different kinds of people.
Iannucci’s characters are never simply archetypes; sure, they are often known by distinguishing behaviors (Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker with his knack for eviscerating his opponents, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer for her stop-at-nothing thirst for honor, power, and face-saving, et cetera), but one can always trust Iannucci and his team of writers will eventually force each character to challenge who they are and what they want when situations change. Just take the standout Death of Stalin sequence in which Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov must balance both his urge to obey the party line and denounce the allegedly seditious wife he presumed dead against his glee and relief as he discovers she is actually alive. In a matter of a few lines, Iannucci backs Molotov into a hilariously complicated corner and highlight some of the most ribald contradictions of the era he depicts, crafting such a horrifically uncomfortable yet darkly amusing situation that one cannot help but salute his creative genius. So imagine my surprise that his new film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, displays almost none of this crafty ingenuity, and strays about as far away from his previous work as one can get; it is sweet, uncomplicated, surface-level, and a genuinely surprising disappointment.
Of course, an artist experimenting with a new approach is not a justifiable reason for poo-pooing their efforts; Iannucci has every right to scrap his usual methods and prioritize smiles over grimaces if he so pleases. However, as he jettisons the typical bite and cruelty, along with them go the craftiness, intrigue, and depth which elevated his talent from run-of-the-mill observational comedy to paradigm-shifting creativity. The Personal History of David Copperfield is so light it feels shallow, so whimsical it feels disinterested. Perhaps most disappointingly, Iannucci’s possibly unparalleled knack for truly side-splitting comedy (go watch Veep and tell me it is/was not the funniest show on television) is almost completely absent. At times, his and Simon Blackwell’s script sounds like a cringe-worthy children’s television show, at others, the jokes may be amusing but the actors assembled drown the humor with misplaced quirkiness.
The Personal History of David Copperfield cast is impressive in name but does not cohere as an ensemble. Dev Patel plays Copperfield, with the levity and nimbleness he often brings to his roles, but never much depth or complexity. His character is floppy and verbose, but like many of the oft-identical young men at the center of Dickens’ narratives, never particularly interesting. The breakneck-speed script does not help this matter, as Patel must rush from line to line without getting a chance to properly present a case for the view to find his character’s life worth following or his performance anything but surface-level. Tilda Swinton plays Miss Trotwood as a remarkably one-note ‘quirky character,’ whose every punchline is considerably flimsy. Peter Capaldi combines the least interesting aspects of his stint leading Doctor Who with none of his genius performances in other Iannucci works to play Mr. Micawber as an irritating dullard. Veep alum Hugh Laurie turns in a performance that is only slightly more charming than exasperating as the head-in-the-clouds oddball Mr. Dick. Gwendoline Christie is effectively menacing as the contemptible Jane Murdstone, though the rigidity of her performance wears thin rather quickly.
Only Benedict Wong, playing often drunk banker Mr. Wickfield, truly shines. Wong, not typically cast in ‘comedic’ roles but often stealing scenes with his comic timing nonetheless, is fantastically funny, and conspicuously more alluring as a comic and dramatic performer than anyone else onscreen. That includes Ben Whishaw, playing the revolting Uriah Heep, whose palpable performance techniques simply sound forced, as if delivered by a greener, less assured actor, unlike the crafty, impressive player we all know Whishaw can be. Dunkirk standout Aneurin Barnard also emulates none of his previously impressive capabilities, playing Copperfield’s school friend Steerforth with little believable enthusiasm. It is remarkable that Iannucci, whose previous works have without fail featured outstanding, perfectly fine-tuned ensembles, could not replicate his usual quality for this group; even in the sporadic moments when the performers are convincing, even captivating, there is rarely a feeling that they are working together as a cast. One can almost see each of them trying to wring laughs from already weak dialogue, which significantly detracts from everything that does actually work.
And yes, certain elements work rather well. Suzie Harman and Robert Worley’s costume design provides the most consistent bright spot; the outfits Copperfield, Whitfield, Trotwood and a few others strut around in are exceptionally eye-popping. (Then again, the threads they pick out for Micawber, Steerforth and Dick struck me as frustratingly unpleasant, though I admit that could well be an intentional aspect of their loony characterization.) One aspect truly worth commending, without reservation, is the remarkable choice to cast many non-white actors in a number of principal roles. The casting of Patel himself, Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Anthony Welsh and more presents a hugely refreshing reworking of the typical depiction of Victorian London, and indeed upends the repetitive tone and look of costume dramas in general. This is, without a doubt, an outstanding decision, and something which I sincerely hope more films emulate because there is really no excuse anymore for all-white casts in historically not all-white areas. Iannucci purportedly intends this film to reflect the diversity of old London as a reminder to today’s audiences that Britain has always been diverse and multicultural, and in that, I salute him more than ever.
That being said, it is a shame the lines these actors are given to say and the labyrinthine plot they are jammed into are so muddled and weak in comparison to the righteous ambitions. It is tempting to laud the film for its diverse cast, but this is only one part of a whole, and though I was hugely impressed with this element, little else elicited such a positive reaction. Christopher Willis’ score becomes gratingly overzealous by midway through; Zac Nicholson’s delirious cinematography will give you a headache; Mick Audsley and Peter Lambert’s editing recalls Bohemian Rhapsody in its highly superfluous freneticism. The ‘charm’ of the adventure is rather manipulatively drawn from flashbacks to a younger Copperfield (played by an enjoyably bubbly Jairaj Varsani) and the general insinuation that you should know and love the book already, and must enjoy these characters’ various random cloying musings as a result.
Perhaps Iannucci simply depressed himself too much with the sharp sardonic brutality of his previous ventures. Perhaps he decided the world has enough dark stories, and he would rather make something light and diverting. Perhaps he just likes Dickens’ Copperfield and wanted to make his admiration of the novel into something larger. Whatever his reason for crafting The Personal History of David Copperfield, Iannucci has unfortunately left most of what makes him an exciting filmmaker behind altogether, and turned in an overly saccharine lark that suggests his true talents lie in satire, not sweetness.