David Copperfield

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Suggested reading:

David Copperfield: Interweaving Truth and Fiction (1991), Graham Storey

The World of Charles Dickens: The Life, Times and Work of the Great Victorian Novelist

(1999), Martin Fido

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. We’re 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 Copperfield’s infant stepbrother. It’s the last time Copperfield will see either of them alive. The scene is eloquently directed by Simon Curtis, but it is Wilkinson’s 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 Cukor’s 1935 film overplays the sentimentality and melodrama to a degree that distorts the richness of Dickens’ range. Cukor’s 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 that’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 debtor’s 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. He’s 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. It’s 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 Copperfield’s 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. It’s 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). Rosa’s 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 it’s easy to overlook how vividly she inhabits the eccentric character. Her transformation from Copperfield’s 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 we’re 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 Mann’s 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, it’s Creakle’s 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