Over ten years ago, Hallmark Entertainment in partnership with TNT produced a two-part, four-hour long adaptation of the Dickens’ classic David Copperfield. It was aired for American audiences but has never been officially released to U.S. viewers. (Go figure!) Overflowing with some talented actors, and hence memorable characters and pretty costumes, this version is more about theatrics than it is staying true to the nitty-gritty of the source material.
The account of his birth was detailed to young David Copperfield more than once in the nine years he lived happily with his young, widowed mother (Sarah Smart). His father’s aunt, Betsy Trotwood (Sally Field) was present the night of his birth but left without saying a word when David turned out to be a boy and namesake of his father rather than the girl she wanted to be given her name. This is where David (Hugh Dancy) begins in writing down the autobiographical story of his life. He writes about the horrible period of time leading up to his mother’s death when she was married to the cruel Edward Murdstone (Anthony Andrews) and his sister, Jane (Eileen Atkins) living with them. Escaping his own tragic circumstances at the hand of his step-father in the aftermath of the death, David finds his aunt and in later years, love with his employer’s daughter, Dora (Julie Cox). In-between the good times, he meets up again with ghosts from the past and finds himself embroiled in a scheme orchestrated by the suspicious Uriah Heep (Frank McCusker) – and saving his childhood friend, Agnes Wickfield in the process.
Anyone who is familiar (who among us isn’t!?) with the story of David Copperfield knows that there is a great deal that happened in-between the good, bad and ugly in the hero’s life. He goes through more than one form of living hell and still, in spite of the world trying to drag him down, he turns out to be an upstanding, formidable man. The message is one that should be an inspiration to any of us who’ve convinced ourselves we cannot do any better because we aren’t better. Here is a story of a young boy whose determination was never lost and he was rewarded for his plucky attitude. There are multiple versions of this story – and no doubt, each of us have our favorites, seeing this version reveals several things about the story while not being overwhelming or too detailed, something I can appreciate. In comparing this with the other version I prefer, I was surprised to realize both clock in within ten minutes of each other. It always seemed as if this U.S. production – one that BBC opted to pass over – was so much shorter and that was the reason why its pacing seemed rushed at times and slow in other instances.
Since it was my first exposure to Dickens in any form, this particular story will always be “special” for me though in retrospect it’s probably not his most challenging or strongest writing. Intellectually, Bleak House has all of his stories beat though there is a lot of solid moral lessons to be found in the multiple subplots that keep us trying to catch our breath as we follow the vignette stories. This one focuses a great deal more on David’s childhood and the volatile temperament of Murdstone. During his adult years, David runs into him several times whereas the relationship he has with Steerforth is much downgraded. In addition to the fabulous cast, Paul Bettany and Michael Richards also have roles. Carrying his role brilliantly is Andrews who’s smirk and evil lurking is creepy enough to be positively wicked as is his deep, grating voice though let me warn you, if you’ve not seen the 1980’s version of The Scarlet Pimpernel (which is brilliant by the way!), then you’ll want to forgo seeing Andrews in this role. The contrast is a bit too disconcerting. Hugh Dancy was as relative unknown at the time of filming but he manages the iconic role tolerably well – he plays a more naïve David who is still fearful of his step-father until the final ten minutes of the film in which he gets an unfortunate, under-played confrontation with him.
If there was only one thing I could constructively criticize it’d be the timeframes and pacing. Far too much of the film focused on David’s childhood but there is an adult David narrating which makes up for the lack of Hugh Dancy in front of the camera. The ending is all too abrupt also though it’s complete. Costuming is pretty if not totally period authentic and the settings are usually grand making for lush landscapes and stylish estates. Perhaps not the most worthy adaptation, Robert Halmi impressed me with his television-produced version of this classic. It’s got lots to its credit and that is what makes this a timeless classic.
(The films rates PG: there is s scene of a child being beaten with a cane [multiple blows]. Behind closed doors, another child is whipped much the same way. Elsewhere, children are mistreated in work houses and at schools – fellow students taunt and bully the newcomer.)