[Screen It]


(2020) (Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton) (PG)

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Drama: A boy grows up into a young man while facing various trials and tribulations in 19th century England.

It's the 1800s and David Copperfield (JAIRAJ VARSANI) is a boy growing up in Suffolk, England with his widowed mother, Clara (MORFYDD CLARK), and their housekeeper, Peggotty (DAISY MAY COOPER). As Clara begins to see businessman Edward Murdstone (DARREN BOYD), David is sent off to the coast to live with the housekeeper's brother, Daniel (PAUL WHITEHOUSE), and the kids he's adopted, Ham (ANTHONY WELSH) and Emily (AIMEE KELLY), and has a grand time there.

When David returns home, he learns that his mother has married Murdstone whose equally cold sister, Jane (GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE), has moved in and taken over with him. When his new father-in-law believes the boy to be insolent, he sends him off to a sweatshop bottling factory where David otherwise lives with Wilkins Micawber (PETER CAPALDI) -- a charismatic fellow who owes a lot of different people money -- and his family, and grows up into a young man (DEV PATEL) there.

When Edward and Jane coldly inform David that his mother has died and the funeral has already occurred, the boy runs off for Dover to find his only living relative, the eccentric Betsey Trotwood (TILDA SWINTON) who lives with her even more eccentric cousin, Mr. Dick (HUGH LAURIE), who takes a platonic liking to David. With Mr. Wickfield (BENEDICT WONG) handling Betsey's finances, David ends up meeting his daughter, Agnes (ROSALIND ELEAZAR), who takes an instant liking to David even if he only views her as akin to a sister.

Soon, David is sent off to school where he meets head classmate James Steerforth (ANEURIN BARNARD), and the two quickly bond, including in making fun of young worker Uriah Heep (BEN WHISHAW) who nonetheless tries to make friends with David.

Once out in the real world, David lands a job as a proctor and ends up falling for his boss' daughter, Dora Spenlow (MORFYDD CLARK), much to the chagrin of Agnes. As David enjoys finally having made it in a tough world, many of the various characters from his past end up returning and ultimately shape his future.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

I haven't the faintest idea what literary work holds the record for the longest title, but I'd guess that "The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)" has to be high up on the list.

The eighth novel by esteemed author Charles Dickens, it's best known by only part of that title, "David Copperfield" and was first published as a two-year serial beginning in 1849 and then a full-fledged book in 1850. It's considered by many as Dickens' masterpiece, a part autobiographical work noted by the author as being a complicated weaving of truth and invention, and has been adapted to both TV and film a number of times.

The latest arrives in the form of "The Personal History of David Copperfield," a film that was high on my list of must-sees due to the cast -- including the likes of Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, and others -- the way the trailer played out, and remembering enjoying reading the work long, long ago in high school.

Granted, my life back in those days was very Beaver Cleaverish and thus quite removed from what Dickens presented for his titular protagonist, all of which made it all the more interesting and engaging to me back then. That said, and with the passage of many intervening decades and lost memory cells, I couldn't say I remembered more than scant details, characters, or even the tone (straight-up drama, satire, black comedy, etc.) of the work.

Accordingly, as I sat down to watch the offering I pretty much went in with a blankish slate, not sure what I'd recall but greatly hoping I'd be as entertained by this latest iteration as I was by the original.

Directed by Armando Iannucci from a screenplay adaptation he co-wrote with Simon Blackwell, the film has its winning moments and delightfully daffy work from some of the performers, along with some creative directorial touches. Overall, though, it feels rushed, occasionally seems a touch artificial in terms of tone and at times comes off as a bit disjointed, perhaps signally that it too should have been spread out over a miniseries like some of its predecessors and thus allowing its various parts to have a bit more breathing room.

Using the unnecessary framing device of our adult protagonist (Patel) reading his semi-autobiography to an assembled audience, the film then rewinds back to his birth where -- in one of several meta moments -- that very man is there to witness his own arrival into the world.

Patel then disappears for a while and we follow the younger version of the protagonist (played by Jairaj Varsani) who has an otherwise happy childhood -- including a visit to an upside-down boat home on the coast where he meets orphaned kids Ham (Anthony Welsh) and Emily (Aimee Kelly). But all of that is upended by the arrival of a mean stepfather (Darren Boyd) and his equally cold sister (Gwendoline Christie) who domineer young David's mother (Morfydd Clark).

Labeled an insolent troublemaker, he's then shipped off to live with a charismatic grifter (a fun Peter Capaldi) -- although perhaps he's just bad with money and thus has debt collectors always after him and his possessions -- while working at a bottling factory where the child sweatshop working conditions are less than ideal.

He (back in Patel form) eventually goes to live with his eccentric aunt (Swinton) and her even more wackadoodle cousin (Laurie) who believes a long-dead and beheaded former monarch's words keep flowing into his head. That leads to an introduction to her financial man (Benedict Wong) and his adult daughter (Rosalind Eleazar) and then a trip to a boarding school where he makes friends with another classmate (Aneurin Barnard) and tries to avoid the somewhat creepy but otherwise friendly school servant (Ben Whishaw) and namesake for a future English rock band. And that eventually leads to meeting Dora (also Morfydd Clark), his new boss' young adult daughter with whom he's instantly smitten.

That's a lot of characters and subplots and I felt they simply overwhelmed the film's not-long-enough running time of around 120 minutes. Again, there are delights to be had at various points. I just wish they and the overall offering were given more time to operate. As it stands, "The Personal History of David Copperfield" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 24, 2020 / Posted August 28, 2020

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