Despite some major casting missteps, TNT’s “David Copperfield” is genuine holiday cheer. Beautifully shot, well-paced and faithful to Charles Dickens’ masterwork, this Hallmark Entertainment project is both an accomplished period drama and a solid piece of family entertainment. It also continues the cable network’s welcome trend that began last year with “A Christmas Carol”: end-of-year event programming full of striking locations, impressive tech credits and a splendid overall execution. Auds’ comfort level with a classic will mean a lot in terms of initial viewership, but it’s the fine-tuning that should keep them hooked.
The leading actors make the four-hour mini worth the time invested. Up against some major talent and a presentation rich in era-driven details, thesps Hugh Dancy and Max Dolbey shine, never once crumbling under the massive material they’re asked to shoulder. As Dickens’ protagonist at different stages, they bring proper sensibilities to the table, whether it’s anger over long-ago neglect or passion for the graceful Dora.
The A-listers fare poorer, with Michael Richards and Sally Field chewing some major scenery as the affable Mr. Micawber and loopy Aunt Betsey. Their participation may come in handy when it comes to selling this handsome package overseas, but the performances are way over the top. That said, the tale’s many memorable roles, however small, are so ripe that their abundance more than makes up for disappointing contributions from bigger names.
Young David’s life, of course, takes a radical turn after mum Clara (Sarah Smart) weds the abominable Mr. Murdstone (Anthony Andrews). Abusive and cold-hearted, the lad’s stepfather is matched only by Aunt Jane (Eileen Atkins), a prissy and sadistic woman who does little to obstruct her brother’s unprovoked rage.
Shipped off to a London boarding school after repeated beatings, David begins to experience the world, helped by a parade of eccentrics. Best friend James Steerforth (Paul Bettany) is a rebellious spirit, and crotchety Mr. Creakle (Peter Woodthorpe) rules the boys firmly. But David’s true savior is Micawber, a gentle man with goofy ideas and an even goofier disposition who can’t escape his fed-up debt collectors. His kindness lasts only so long before David, destitute again, finds his way back to Aunt Betsey.
Part one establishes the mood and settings, while the second night is more elaborate, both in terms of staging and in narrative development. Cute and cuddly no more, David is now an up-and-coming barrister who has decided to log his personal journey. His historic love triangle also begins, with David’s soul strongly aimed at Dora (Julie Cox), while the bashful Agnes Wickfield (Emily Hamilton) waits in the wings.
There’s also the sly and snakelike Uriah Heep (Frank McCusker), an embezzler who lives as if everyone is worthy of a scam. His creepy affections for Agnes and penchant for crime eventually lead to David’s enlightenment, and his decision to confront the Murdstones comes only after Dora’s death leaves him with even more unresolved emotions.
Whether viewers are acquainted with these characters or their circumstances — they have been filmed at least eight times before — director Peter Medak and scenarist John Goldsmith are able to assemble the story with intimacy and charm (but not enough humor), and Dolbey and Dancy are significant reasons for that.
But Richards, hard as he may try, just can’t get past his Kramer shtick. Bald and pudgy here, his Micawber is yet another buffoon, ready and willing to stammer and stutter. And if Richards seems overly familiar, Field is hysterical. With a shrill voice that gets louder by the minute, her enthusiasm is minimized by outright silliness.
Weak star power aside, the other supporting players are a joy. Andrews and McCusker outduel each other for the title of society’s dirtiest bastard, while Atkins gives spinsters a rotten reputation. Their hatred is balanced nicely by Cox and Hamilton’s tenderness, giving auds something to root for.
Nineteenth-century England is superbly re-created, with Michael Pickwoad’s production design often stealing the show. Class struggles are evident, with the wealthy on higher ground and the needy also shown taking their position among the city’s growing population. Overall look is greatly enhanced by Elemer Ragalyi’s lensing and Shaun Davey’s understated score.