The Personal History of David Copperfield
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) movie review
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield follows the titular orphan as he overcomes the obstacles of early to mid-1800s London. The film originally premiered last year at Toronto film festival, and after Covid-related delays, found its theatrical release this weekend to moderately high critical reception, but generally lower audience scores.
Look I don’t know if it’s because Emma. (2020) was just significantly better, or because the theater felt like it was eighty degrees, or because I was still thinking about how much I enjoyed Bill & Ted Face the Music, but this will always be the weekend where time-traveling middle-aged surfer dudes have a more interesting story than one written by Charles Dickens… Now if you don’t mind two hours of generally depressing storytelling with an admittedly redeeming finale that crawls along through a terrible messy stylistic continuity, sure you will probably like the film more than I did. However I already saw Southpaw (2015), so I don’t really need another two hours of ‘Bad Things Happen: The Movie.’
Now before I talk about why this film falls flat for me, I do want to give the film some praise. The editing is terrible inconsistent, but the cinematography was consistently solid. Beyond that the score, costume design, and overall production design in the film was exactly what it should have been for the period. The performances were something I expected to be a highlight as well, and I was not disappointed there. Dev Patel, Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, and the rest of the cast all deliver strong performances that somehow manage to meet the films dismal tone. High Laurie especially stole the show as his eccentric yet surprisingly heartfelt Mr. Dick, and Ranveer Jaiswal, who okays David from ages seven to eleven was genuinely fantastic!
Now putting aside the would-be Oscar nods for supporting actor and production design, I didn’t find the film interesting at all. This had to do with tone and characters primarily, but I do really need to pick on the inconsistent editing that was as messy as it was confusing. The style choices try and fail to be unique, instead simply offering questionable moments where the fourth wall may or may not exist. Some of the editing was also supposed to add humor at times (theoretically), but that task was futile when you don’t have funny things happen. Even Wes Anderson knows when to be serious, but I have just no idea what this movie thinks is funny or not. The trailer makes some moments look genuinely hilarious, but when you put them in context, the go from funny to downright depressing. And that is a good way to sum up the tone: occasionally funny but quick to depress. Yet the sour tone never made me sad or empathetic like Les Misérables (2012), it just made me annoyed that I didn’t care about the characters.
And yeah, I didn’t like most of the characters. A few in the supporting cast, like Mr. Dick are very endearing, but they also never made me see characters like Mr. Micawber as anything but a bum. Worse of all was probably David Copperfield though, who doesn’t show many signs of being a good person until right at the end. Sure it is part of his character arc, but I don’t think it was handled as well as it could have been. You can have a passive person who needs to learn to stand up for what he things is right, and that actually does make for a good finally, but I just wish I didn’t hate him throughout. Honestly I feel like he is often responsible for his own dire circumstances by not learning to change sooner, and that is understandable from the perspective of a screenplay, but it is also responsible for ‘Bad Things Happen: The Movie.’
In the end, The Personal History of David Copperfield is probably what it wants to be as far as writing goes. It is about a boy who grows up and learns to stand up for himself after a lifetime of trials and tribulations he must endure. However thanks to the messy style, often unsympathetic characters, and mishandled tone, it just feels like we the audience have to sit for two hours while bad things happen to people we more than not don’t care for. I for one did not enjoy this one despite its quality. Now in the hands of someone with a better mastery of tone, I could have seen Copperfield as one of the best films of the year, but as it stands, I’m going to completely forget about this film by Tuesday. 5/10.
So, The Personal History of David Copperfield? Did ya see it? What did you think? And what is your favorite 1800s period dramedy? Be sure to leave a like or a comment below and let us know! And if you liked this review and you want to read more like it, be sure to let us know in the comments what you want us to review next!
-review by Ryan Prince