Monday, December 7, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is well-off, then bad-off, then well-off, then bad-off, and then well-off again in this brisk and charmingly color-blind adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel.

I wonder if they thought, "Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield" and then decided to ignore race in the casting, or if they decided to ignore race, and then realized Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield.

Two hours of screen time is not long enough for an 800-page novel. I've yet to read it, but I don't need to know what was shortened or cut out to know that it was done. Severely, I expect. And that's why I'm glad I saw this before reading it. Because I enjoyed it immensely, and though I know I'm missing something, I haven't a clue as to what. Well—I do in a general sense. But more on that later. At first brush, David's journey of growing up and becoming a writer, surrounded by a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and an even more wild ride in the forms of eternally kooky supporting characters, feels like Dickens 100%. If you get a Dickens itch, this will scratch it.

It speeds along through the plot at sometimes too great speeds, although it never gets exhausting and has good pacing. The only thing I waited for was for young David to grow into Dev Patel—and once he did the film came alive and found its lively and comfortable groove. I don't know what David's personality is supposed to be like, but Patel seems to me a Dickens hero through and through. Easy-going, energetic, funny and sincere with occasional outbursts of anger and na├»ve stupidity. Ideal. Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, and Ben Whishaw all added to it, but it was Patel who made the movie sing.

There are some first-rate scene transitions in this thing.

The problem comes in when the movie reaches the dramatic parts that are meant to have stakes, and you realize that they were skimmed over so quickly that it's tough to figure out what bad had happened, let alone care about it. This movie hits the colorful, charming, and fun notes remarkably well; but in order to be fully satisfying, a story needs the audience investment that serious drama brings. And while it's not lacking in it completely, it was frustrating when the movie ended, and I realized the film had only included us in half of David's experiences. We get a full sense of his happiness, but the trials are cut short and brushed aside. I grasped that Ben Whishaw was the movie's main villain in the same scene in which he's defeated. I had no time to care. Without the downs of a story, how can an audience fully appreciate the ups?

So it left me fully charmed, but only partially invested. And that's too bad, because while I like being charmed, it's getting into the nitty gritty of caring about the characters that ultimately most important to my falling in love with a story. Still, you can hardly blame The Personal History of David Copperfield for focusing in on what it did. It may have left me a little empty, but it clearly wanted to focus on the brighter side of everything and have fun, and that's what it did. All in all, its shortcomings left me wanting to read the book—and that's a compliment in itself.