By God, they’ve done it again. It’s a blessing that the smart creative types at the Beeb and WGBH-Boston ran out of Jane Austen novels to adapt into miniseries. Consequently, this spring, viewers are treated to a scrumptious three-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel “David Copperfield” that’s as moving and inspiring as it is beautiful to watch.
The oft-filmed story of a young boy’s hardship-filled journey to manhood in Victorian England gets a sharply focused treatment, thanks to Adrian Hodges’ fine script, helmer Simon Curtis’ (“The Student Prince”) direction and a sterling cast — Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins and Ian McKellen are a few of the familiar faces — that should give die-hard Anglophiles enough thespian magic to last until the next big production makes it over the pond.
With the famous opening line, “Whether I should turn out the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, this story must show” — a line made famous again by frequent quoting in the film version of John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules” — this handsomely mounted mini is off and running.
Viewers are soon thrown into the life and times of the fatherless David Copperfield, whose brief period of happiness with his weak-willed mother (Emilia Fox) and loving nanny Peggotty (Pauline Quirke) comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of a sinister stepfather Murdstone (Trevor Eve) and his humorless sister (Zoe Wanamaker). After David bites Murdstone’s hand during a beating, he’s sent to a nightmare of a boarding school run by the monster Mr. Creakle (Ian McKellen).
As is the case with many Dickensian plotlines, just when you think the poor hero can’t possibly suffer any more, fate gives him yet another whipping. David’s mother dies, and he’s sent to work in a dark sweatshop in the bowels of London. There he meets the good-hearted Mr. Micawber (a well-cast Bob Hoskins) and his dedicated wife (Imelda Staunton), who take him under their wing — until Micawber is sent to debtor’s prison.
The boy is soon forced to travel to Dover on foot, to track down his great aunt Betsey, played with exquisite eccentricity by the peerless Maggie Smith.
Portrayed by Ciaran McMenamin, the adult Copperfield finds a new home with Aunt Betsey’s lawyer and his charming daughter, Agnes. Yet, even here, dark shadows follow. The obsequious clerk, Uriah Heep, ranks as one of the author’s most irritating and malevolent creations, and here, he is brought to life by the talented tube thesp Nicholas Lyndhurst. Heep’s reptilian presence haunts the second half of the story and drives this “David” to its dramatic heights.
The fact that Copperfield’s marriage to the dim and innocent Dora (Joanna Page) doesn’t bring him complete happiness is another intelligent development, which has resonated with fans of the book for many decades.
Yet what one takes away from the drama are not the minutiae of the author’s well-oiled machine of a story, but the tender scenes between David and the guiding angels of his life.
This very traditional BBC production benefits greatly from the lush U.K. locations, d.p. Andy Collins’ painterly eye, Mike O’Neill’s costumes, Roger Cann’s on-the-money production design and Robert Lane’s infectious score.
A tip of the hat also to Tom Wilkinson’s gentle narration. His readings of lines like “Time steals on unobserved, the years glide by silently, and I move from childhood to youth” act as a helpful catalyst that glues the chapters together.
No review would be complete without a loud cheer for the delightfully comic and heart-breaking performances by Smith and Hoskins, whose odd behavioral tics entertain us, while their strength of character and loyalty can still bring a tear or two to the eyes of a jaded 21st century viewer.