Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Charles Dickens was known for his tales of triumph over adversity. He vividly painted eccentric, likable, and devious characters across the page. David Copperfield is one of his most beloved novels, from the gentle leading character to the sinister, redheaded Uriah Heep to the eccentric spendthrift Micawber, even to the unique leading ladies in young David's life... the spoiled Dora, the lovely Agnes, and beautiful Emily. This TNT adaptation, which shows occasionally on network and cable television, is not as faithful to the book as the earlier BBC drama, but is equally engaging.
Young David Copperfield (Hugh Dancy) is driven to write a narrative of his history and the many interesting people he has encountered in the past twenty years of life. His father died some six months before David's birth, leaving his beautiful young wife a meager sum to live on. On the night fate chooses to deliver her son, a figure emerges from the darkness. Copperfield's aunt Miss Betsy Trotwood (Sally Field) who has had an estrangement from her nephew for his marriage. Now she seeks to take his widow under her wing, but is gravely insulted to discover the child is a boy and not the girl she hoped for. Taking up her bonnet and muttering of the illness of life, she flounces out into the rain and is never seen again.
David's first ten years of life are spent in happy oblivion, for his mother dotes on him and he worships the ground she walks on. But then Mr. Murdstone (a barely-recognizable Anthony Andrews) comes into his life, a conniving, devious, cruel man who manages to intimidate David's mother into marriage, and makes David's once-beautiful world reflect the very images of hell. After being beaten and savagely abused, the poor child is sent away to school in London, leaving his frightened mother alone with Murdstone and his equally sinister sister. The school is little better than at home, but David's savior comes in the form of Steerforth, one of the older boys who takes the ten year old under his wing and shields him from the cruelty of the other children. Through a series of misadventures, memorable characters, and occasional poverty, David eventually winds up in the care of his great aunt Betsy Trotwood. From there his life takes many a surprising turn as old faces reappear, new ones emerge, and eventually he is called to defend a man's honor.
Through his own lovesick adoration for a young woman to the true love provided from an unexpected source, through poverty, moments of wealth, mystery, and the usual lineup of suspicious and sinister figures in Victorian England, David Copperfield will eventually become the man he was destined to be. For book enthusiasts, this will be a mixed bag. On the one hand, much of the dialogue and narrative comes directly from the pages of Dickens. On the other the writer has compressed the novel, removed significant characters and plot twists, and further involved Murdstone in David's older life, something Dickens himself never pursued. I didn't mind the changes, for after all it needs something to remove it from earlier adaptations. Having Murdstone remain a central villain in the story did much for furthering the plot. The viewer feels a cold chill each time his face reappears, due in part thanks to the brilliant acting of Anthony Andrews. The flaws are rare; this is an adaptation people of all ages might enjoy without reaching for the remote. Half a dozen mild abuses of deity and one profanity slip in (curiously, they seem out of place). Thematic elements are heavy, but by far the film's most stomach-wrenching scene is when Murdstone turns David over his knee and flogs him to within an inch of his life. The way the scene is inter-cut with images of the older David flinching makes it all the more painful. A sinister employee shows an interest in a young woman, but never makes any inappropriate advances.
The cast is all quite good. Michael Richards is apparently having a blast playing Micawber, the well-dressed linguist always running from creditors. His portrayal is somewhat more humorous than earlier adaptations but it works... Dickens' stories are, after all, part satire. Hugh Dancy struggles at first, but then turns in an excellent performance. Sally Field goes a bit overboard with trilling "DonKEYS!" as Betsy Trotwood but eventually settles into her role with dignity. Something I also valued in this over the other adaptation... the role of David's mother Clara is much more likable and less pathetic. There is poverty, illness, death, contempt, cruelty, and injustice. Fortunately there is also enough humor to weigh some of the darker scenes, mingled with wonderful sketches of human character and a nice dose of sap for the romantic at heart. If you ever get a chance, visit the memoirs of David Copperfield.