On paper, The Personal History of David Copperfield does everything right. The first feature film adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1849-'50 novel in a half century is both clearly in love with the source material (just check out that title, which at least reminds us that most Dickens novels technically have much longer names than we generally use when we're talking about them*). But it's not using the source material as a prison, instead charging it up with zippy comic energy, thanks to director Armando Iannucci's great skill with keeping banter moving at a fast clip, as well as his ability to gather enormous and extremely talented casts all in one place and then find good things for all of them to do. And David Copperfield has an especially ingenious cast, on top of it.

In practice I found The Personal History of David Copperfield to be an entirely enervating experience, one of those particularly deadly movies that feels both much too long and much too short at the same time. The film's biggest misstep is about as obvious as it could be: David Copperfield is Dickens's longest novel and one of his most sprawling in the amount of random stuff that collides into its main character, and this film is just a tiny bit under two hours long. That ordinarily mean making some hard choices about what to cut out, what to combine, what to summarise, and what to re-imagine. Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell seem to have opted for a rather different strategy: what if we just tried to cover everything really fast?

I mean, not everything, of course. There are at least a couple decent-sized subplots and at least one reasonably significant character who don't show up at all. But it definitely feels like Iannucci and Blackwell have tried to make the fewest number of hard choices they could get away with in paring down a book that, to be frank, could stand some merciless paring down: I am a great fan of Dickens, but I find David Copperfield to be too shapeless, mindlessly sentimental, and hung up on a fairly bland protagonist and a love interest who is the single most insipid character that Dickens ever wrote. That has nothing to do with the experience of watching the movie, which feels like watching a video at 1.5x speed or scrubbing through it by dragging the playhead along. It is bolting forward at top speed basically from the first scene transition, and I for one found it exhausting and monotonous in its refusal to single out individual moments for added attention or consideration.

Hence my complaint: it's both too long and too short. Too long, because the plunkplunkplunk rhythm of scenes and within scenes offers no variety and so it starts to feel droning. Too short because if we had exactly the same scenes, but just added more space for them to operate in, I suspect the film would have been a much more satisfying experience. For there's plenty of perfectly solid material inside this David Copperfield. The ensemble is pretty damn great, for one, and gives the film one of its few points of interest: its colorblind casting, starting with the Indian-descended Dev Patel in the role of David Copperfield himself, and proceeding through a melting pot of every skin tone and ethnic background one might expect to find in England of the 21st Century. While I doubt this was specifically Iannucci's goal, it's a simple way to create a jarring modern gloss on the material: it immediately wrests the material out of the chilly, fussy realm of prestige literary adaptations that care more about capturing the letter of the source than the spirit. Seeing such a wide spread of humanity demands that we think about this narrative not as something nicely embalmed in a history book, but as something that lives and evolves and still resonates some 170 years after Dickens first jotted all of this down (the effect is diluted a bit in that the three obviously best performances - Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, and Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick - aren't just white, but three specific actors whom you could easily imagine showing up in these exact roles in a more conventionally-cast adaptation. But only a bit).

It's also a very handsomely-appointed film: the sets and costumes (designed by, respectively, Cristina Casali, and Suzie Harman and Robert Worley) are lavish and colorful, not as the re-creation of a specific time and place in history, but as something closer to the illustrations in a children's book. The film uses the richness of color as a way of portraying Copperfield's own mood across the story, with his ups and downs . And forgive me for not providing a plot synopsis: the book David Copperfield doesn't really have a single plot to synopsise, and the movie follows suit. It's basically "various random anecdotes that happened to me, in order, before I finally crawled out of destitution for the last time".

That's where the film kills itself. It's bad enough that Iannucci demonstrates such unseemly haste in racing through the film at top speed: this is made even worse by the particulars of the story structure, where that strategy of racing through each scene serves to exaggerate the lack of any clear flow between them. The film ends up feeling like it's just a chain of walk-on appearances by a whole lot of people who deserve actual space to catch our attention, rather than just verbalise a plot point and evaporate so that the film can get to the next one. Nobody but Patel gets a real chance to build a character, and he's stuck with a character who doesn't have much to build. So we get frustrations like Rosalind Eleazar's wonderful Agnes Wickfield, patient and cutting in exactly the way that the movie wants to function - she's using modern attitudes to pull Dickens into the 21st Century without ever working against the spirit or the letter of the novel - having only exactly the screentime she needs in order to make sure the plot functions, without getting the warm, relaxed moments that make here one of the very best women that Dickens ever wrote. We get Ben Whisaw's Uriah Heep - inexplicably wearing a mod wig that looks like an oil bicycle helmet made of hair - zipping in and out of the film to serve as the object that villainy can be pressed upon, without the actor (who tries, but fails) nor the script ever making us feel how unpleasant and clammy he is; he's an obstacle to overcome, not an antagonist to contend with, and certainly not the dark mirror Copperfield the book makes of him.

This rocket-sled speed is the biggest problem, and nothing was ever going to make the film work in the face of it, but Iannucci doesn't help by applying some of the damned weirdest stylistic choices. One of these is to present the film as a staged reading of Copperfield's memoirs - that's fair, we know Dickens did exactly these sorts of readings, it's a cute in-joke - and then forgetting about it entirely except when it can be used to create a wacky scene transition. Or, regrettably, the strange and distracting rear-projection of scenes from elsewhere in the film on walls behind characters, where they seem to be more-or-less aware of the rear projection. If the whole thing was going for a metanarrative, or even just a flagrantly artificial, theatrical approach - I would not wish for filmmakers to look to the Joe Wright Anna Karenina for inspiration, but that's doing the kind of thing that David Copperfield is sort of gesturing at, without doing a single thing to actually commit to it. There's no apparent reason for the projections, any more than there's a reason for the other big structural flourish: the different chapters of Copperfield's life appear as titles superimposed over a shot of him writing his personal history (this is, among other things, incompatible with the conceit that we're watching him recite this all in a theater). Both of these just pop up at more or less random moments across the film to remind us that this is a constructed fiction, but if there's an actual point to any of this, I'm sure I don't know what it might be.

Just to top it all off, the film has some of the ugliest, most chaotic handheld camerawork I've seen in years. There are some very needlessly showy angles (the camera strapped to a pendulum in a grandfather clock; the camera rolling along the ground at the level of carriage wheels), and these are irritating enough, but the way the camera jerks around in the middle of dialogue scenes is downright antagonising. It matches the film's sense of unrelenting speed, but not in a good way, and contritbutes to the feeling that this is all much too goddamn messy. Add in the generally flat comedy - Iannucci thrives on bitter, meanspirited jokes, and when he lets that happen here, it works (the scene where Copperfield is told that his mother has died is easily the funniest part of the film), but he's trying to make something nice, uplifiting, and humane, and it's really just not in his wheelhouse at all - and no matter how winning the ensemble is, and how energetic and upbeat the film tries to be, this David Copperfield feels like it's drowning in the material rather than giving it an exciting contemporary gloss.

*For example, the book in question is "actually" called The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).