A masterwork of magical realism, “Don Quixote” is coated with so many spiritual layers that boiling it down to fit a set schedule is almost heretical. TNT and Hallmark are the latest executors to discover that when the world’s most famous knight errant is personified, the essence of make-believe loses its appeal. The great novel that has inspired artisans and dreamers is reduced, through no fault of the players, to just another telepic about a foolish ol’ man.
Don’t blame John Lithgow. As the chivalric warrior, the “Third Rock” thesp falls in love with the idea of de-cency and tackles his character’s demons and ideals with unbridled energy. A pet project of Lithgow’s ever since a bigscreen version fell through years ago, his interpretation is grand and dignified.
So what gives? Time, primarily. At more than two hours, the telepic is longer than standard made-fors, but this is literature’s most textured opus. Cervantes laced his 1,000-plus-page tale with illusion, beauty and his theories on existence. What auds get here, however, is commercial breaks that separate mutually exclusive confrontations.
Quixote fights an enemy, then battles windmills, then stands up to a band of thieves. Because of the restric-tions, director Peter Yates and scribe John Mortimer had no choice but to divide the complex journey into brief chapters. Nothing substantial comes of it, and the grandness of the massive expedition becomes irrelevant.
The familiarity certainly will entice many. A tender soul, Alonso Quijano decides one day to dedicate his life to combating the forces of evil. Fueled by the passion of Dulcinea del Toboso (Vanessa Williams), he saddles up Rocinante and persuades Sancho Panza (Bob Hoskins) to come along.
The ageless episodes get their due. Sancho is tossed on a blanket when a small community discovers the ruse; Sanson Carrasco (James Purefoy) is asked to reel in the hero and send him home; mysterious soldiers challenge Quixote to duels; and a skeptical Duchess (Isabella Rossellini) follows him with mocking contempt.
But throughout all of these events, Quixote looks only absurd, and that’s a big problem. For despite the lunatic state, Cervantes always implied that he might actually be sane — that he wasn’t so loony after all.
But Lithgow’s Quixote, as decent as he is, comes off as psychotic in every quarrel. Even without Sancho’s consistent doubts, crazy rarely becomes crafty; he’s simply a wacko, with issues.
It’s hard to knock a classic, especially since everyone performs with a heart most telepics only hope for. But enthusiasm can’t hide the holes. What’s more, “Don Quixote’s” charms come from imagination, so Robert Halmi’s traditionally strong special effects also suffer the disadvantage of the tangible.
As Lithgow’s pudgy counterpart, Hoskins is amusing enough as prose’s best-known sidekick, and his final speech to a dying friend is touching. Supporting roles are solid, especially Purefoy and a host of Royal Shake-speare Company thesps who show up for five or six lines of dialogue. Not as sturdy are Williams and Rossellini, two talents whose characters are essential to the book, but here get little screen time.
Spanish locations are welcome, especially the collection of rural dwellings and the tranquillity of the calm countryside. Younger viewers may take to the Cliffs Notes-style brevity of each incident, but depth plays no part in this gentleman’s ride.