This hourlong dramatization of how French artist Edgar Degas found the muse for his famous images of dancers has the look and feel of an “ABC Afterschool Special” of an earlier TV era. Still, producers of this entertaining spec do a good job of putting the storytelling ahead of the educational elements even if the script is stodgy in places and the acting stilted.
Special could, however, go further toward enlightening small fry about art with more discussion of why Degas and his fellow Impressionists were considered such rebels in their day, or what prompted Degas’ foray into sculpture.
Set in 1874 Paris, this quasi-fictional tale purportedly based on “certain real-life events” begins just after the death of Degas’ father. The passing left the temperamental artiste — already well known for his portraiture — grousing about “money worries” and bitter about having to consider the commercial aspects of his art.
When a friend who is writing a book on ballet asks Degas to supply the illustrations, the artist reluctantly agrees to observe a class of budding ballerinas. His eye is immediately drawn to the clumsiest girl of the bunch. Marie, the daughter of a widowed washer woman, is soon hired as Degas’ model.
Degas never does get around to doing the illustrations for his friend’s book, but Marie’s movements in class and in Degas’ studio inspire the artist’s series of paintings and sculptures of dancers at work and at ease.
After a rocky start — the ever-cranky Degas repeatedly refers to Marie as “the little monkey” — the odd couple bond because both have considerable talents that are constrained by self-doubt.
Over time, Degas’ encouragement helps Marie ace the audition for a prestige paying gig as a dancer, while Marie’s pluck convinces Degas to forget about fitting in with the snooty Parisian art establishment and keep working even as his eyesight wanes.
A more technical bit of information is deftly imparted in a scene where Degas demonstrates to Marie how he puts layer after layer of pastel colors on the canvas to capture the image of dancers “shimmering, like butterflies.”
Perfs by Thomas Jay Ryan as Degas and Alison Pill as Marie are wooden at times, and they’re also handicapped by some corny dialogue. Degas, in his frequent rages, spouts many cliches from the tortured artist handbook: “My paintings are finished when I say they’re finished!” and “Nothing I’ve ever done is any good,” to cite but a few.
Marie is unconvincing in the big confrontation scene when she exhorts, with little visible emotion, to the downtrodden Degas, “Why don’t you listen to your own stupid advice once in a while!”
Robin Duke (“Saturday Night Live”) is charming in the one-dimensional role of Degas’ loyal maid Zoe, who endures his daily tirades and ultimately helps patch things up between Degas and Marie.
Tech credits are fine.