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WGBH/ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre
presents on PBS
Charles Dickens 1850 novel, David Copperfield, is arguably the most famous
coming-of-age story in the English language. Edgar Johnson, in his definitive 1952 biography of the author, writes: "No
other boy has known exactly the same circumstances as David Copperfield, and yet all
childhood is there." Much of it is autobiographical. Dickens, like his fictional
counterpart, was pulled from school in adolescence and sent to work in a London factory.
The novel transmutes the literal life, but the ruefulness is born of authentic
hardscrabble memories. Because he knew neglect and betrayal first-hand as a boy, the
sanctity of childhood is often paramount in Dickens work. Toward the end of his
life, he referred to David Copperfield as his "favorite child." Dickens
reached deep within himself while writing it, giving voice to residual psychic wounds. In
the process, he reclaimed a share of lost innocence for himself and for countless readers.
"I have taken with fear and trembling to authorship," Copperfield tells us late
in the book. Like his creator, he achieves fame as a writer in his twenties. In many
interesting ways, this is a portrait of the artist as a young man.
The splendid new PBS Masterpiece Theatre presentation of David
Copperfield (coproduced by BBC America and WGBH Boston) is remarkably faithful to the
sublime melancholy that pervades the story. Were always aware while reading the book
that Copperfield is relating his story as an adult struggling to recapture the essence of
a painful childhood. Adrian Hodges television script accomplishes something similar
with its generous use of spoken narration taken directly from Dickens and beautifully read
by Tom Wilkinson. There is a world-weariness and sad wisdom that Wilkinson brings to his
off-screen role. He sets the tone for the production again and again.
The first hour contains a marvelous example of narration and action
blending seamlessly. Eight-year-old Copperfield (Daniel Radcliffe) departs for boarding
school after a brief Christmas vacation at home. The coach pulls away and he watches from
the backseat as his mother (Emilia Fox) stands in the distance holding aloft
Copperfields infant stepbrother. Its the last time Copperfield will see either
of them alive. The scene is eloquently directed by Simon Curtis, but it is
Wilkinsons narration (taken from the closing lines of chapter eight) that supplies
the heartbreak: "So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school -- a
silent presence near my bed -- looking at me with the same intent face -- holding her baby
in her arms."
Masterpiece Theatre aims straight for the heart of David Copperfield
and finds the quiet emotions and the understatement that have often been lacking in
previous versions. George Cukors 1935 film overplays the sentimentality and melodrama to a
degree that distorts the richness of Dickens range. Cukors film is usually
remembered for W. C. Fields joyous supporting role as Wilkins Micawber. But Freddie
Bartholomew as young Copperfield is the real star of the movie, and his performance is as
garish and false as the worst of Shirley Temple. The PBS production wisely focuses on the
behavior of the adults, rather than on the adolescent actor portraying Copperfield. Daniel
Radcliffe has a naturalistic presence -- rare enough in child actors -- and he seems like
a real boy, which is all thats really required. David Copperfield is not meant to be
an exceptional child. He is an ordinary child to whom extraordinary things happen.
There is nothing ordinary, however, about Wilkins Micawber. He is one
of Dickens greatest comic creations, as memorable as Shakespeares Falstaff.
Grandiloquent and good-hearted, Micawber is forever skating on the edge of ruin. Economic
hardship keeps him in a state of manic-depressive flux, suicidal one moment and ecstatic
the next. A wayward father-figure for Copperfield, the character is actually based in part
on Dickens father. Like Micawber, the elder Dickens was jailed for a time in
debtors prison. The versatile British actor Bob Hoskins plays Micawber in the PBS
production. By some strange quirk of TV scheduling, Hoskins is all over the cable dial
this month, in roles as odd and varied as Manuel
Noriega and Sancho Panza. If he
fails to erase the memory of W. C. Fields fanciful perfection as Micawber, Hoskins
nevertheless brings warmth and low-key comedy to his own interpretation of the part.
Hes especially effective in a dinner party scene with newlywed Copperfield (the
adult Copperfield is played with rather bland earnestness by Ciaran McMenamin). His back
to the camera, Hoskins battles to pry open a recalcitrant oyster shell. Its a
priceless moment. With his shoulders and elbows twitching and flailing, he creates a few
magical seconds of slapstick heaven.
Actor Trevor Eve is appropriately chilling as Copperfields
heartless stepfather, Edward Murdstone. The script goes a bit soft by inventing a scene of
Murdstone momentarily letting down his guard, weeping over the deaths of his wife and
newborn son, and expressing his hostility and resentment toward Copperfield. Its not
in the novel, and seems closer to our modern compulsion for self-disclosure than to
Dickens Murdstone, who embodies the sinister ground-zero of Victorian repression.
More successful -- and true to the novel -- is the kinky chemistry between the frivolous
cad James Steerforth (Oliver Milburn) and the love-sick Rosa Dartle (Clare Holman).
Rosas upper lip is scarred from Steerforth having hurled a hammer at her face when
they were children. Now, as adults, Rosa has an obsessional love/hate relationship with
Steerforth that finds its eerie expression one evening when Rosa plays an impromptu harp
recital for Steerforth and Copperfield. Typical of this program at its best, the scene
distills dozens of pages of complex Dickensian storytelling into five or six compelling
minutes of screen time.
Aunt Betsey Trotwood is such a tailor-made role for Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) that its easy to
overlook how vividly she inhabits the eccentric character. Her transformation from
Copperfields foe to his strongest defender and benefactor never seems contrived.
Nicholas Lyndhurst brings plenty of intensity to playing Dickens quintessential
hypocrite and all-around weasel, Uriah Heep, but his story line is so condensed from the
novel that were left with little more than a one-dimensional villain. The crowning
performance, however, is Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters) in an all-too-brief cameo as Mr.
Creakle, the abusive headmaster of Salem House boarding school. Laurence Olivier was a
hammy embarrassment as Creakle in Delbert Manns mediocre 1970 film version of David Copperfield. But McKellen
is astonishing. He captures with insidious subtlety the strained whispery voice and
bottled-up rage described by Dickens. In the novel, its Creakles wife who
tells Copperfield that his mother is dead. The PBS script dispenses with Mrs. Creakle and
gives the scene to McKellen, who works wonders with it, creating a gleefully dark portrait
of callous insensitivity. Indeed, McKellen is so good that one can imagine Dickens
applauding from on high.
As with many Masterpiece Theatre adaptations, this one sometimes feels
too compressed and truncated, even at three and a half hours spread over two nights. But
there is much to enjoy, from the cinematography that shimmers with natural light, to the
evocative countryside and seashore locations. Above all, David Copperfield is
recommended and worth seeing for a handful of winning Dickensian performances that are as
fine as any that have graced television and movie screens.
- Bob Wake