Those who oppose National Endowment for the Arts funding love to beat up on "Masterpiece Theatre." It's an acquired taste, they say, mocking as dry and irrelevant the series' focus on extremely long, commercial-less adaptations of classic literature.
For the record, "David Copperfield" is an extremely long and commercial-less adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale. It features no TV soap stars, naval-baring teen pop singers or big, bald guys in sweat shorts, and at no time during its two-night run does anyone try to sell you a pickup truck.
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When: 9 Sunday and Monday on PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre."
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen.
Nevertheless, the show has merit.
For those who slept through high school literature class, "David Copperfield" is the epic story of a 19th-century urchin whose bad luck forces him to endure the psychological abuse, physical punishment and back-breaking labor common to British children of that era. He survives to find the comfort and love that was not common to some.
The BBC and Boston's WGBH co-commissioned Adrian Hodges' adaptation as a 1999 stocking stuffer for all of Great Britain, stoking the cast with lots of names familiar to British audiences. TV viewers on the near side of the sea will recognize Academy Award-winner Maggie Smith from "A Room with a View" and Bob Hoskins from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and more recent cable TV appearances in TNT's "Don Quixote" and Showtime's "Noriega: God's Favorite." And although the name won't ring a bell for Americans, the show includes as David's most valuable friend Harry Lloyd - a 15-year-old descendant of the original author.
If "David Copperfield" is, as biographers claim, a semi-autobiographical reflection of Dickens' early life, director Simon Curtis amplifies David's relationship with his mother and nanny to put his later hardships in perspective. The undying love of Peggotty, played to perfection by Pauline Quirke, continues to tug at the heartstrings long after young David sets off alone to face a dangerous world. Emilia Fox gives Clara Copperfield a youth and spontaneity sure to resonate with modern audiences.
Fox's laughter and carefree nature are fun to watch and devastating to lose when her character marries the stern and vicious Mr. Murdstone, played with rigidity and a vengeance by Trevor Eve. His total domination of his young wife and her household makes him the first in a long string of bad guys who make "David Copperfield" so compelling to watch. It's easy to crave their comeuppance, and those who stick with the show won't be disappointed.
The baddest of the bad guys is Mr. Creakle (Ian McKellen), the sadistic headmaster of a boarding school who gets his kicks by beating the Dickens, so to speak, out of young belligerents. "Roots" has nothing on the crack, CRACK of the whip in "Copperfield's" brutal torture scenes, some of which may not be suitable for all audiences. As young David, Daniel Radcliffe is convincing throughout, but he shows talent beyond his years during the most disturbing scenes of cruelty and humiliation.
But as much as audiences may want the bad guys to suffer, they'll want to reach through the screen and hug David's benefactors. Hoskins is wonderful as a dedicated family man who takes David in and helps him despite his chronic debt. Hoskins plays it with a touch of warmth and just the amount of affection that would have been appropriate at the time.
Great Aunt Betsey (Smith), who in a funny opening scene was betting that the newborn David would be a girl, grows in importance in Part 2 when the scraggily, broken boy shows up at her lavish estate. David, now played more predictably by Ciaran McMenamin, falls in love, marries, becomes a writer and finally finds his fortune after the failure of a legal fraud perpetrated by Nicholas Lyndhurst's weasely Uriah Heep.
Although the story is supposed to kick into high gear on the second night, its villains are far less vile. And David, as a capable young man, is less vulnerable and less interesting. Still, Dickens' story is intact, and Part 2 rewards its audience with a warm and fuzzy ending. But it's a long way to go for a happily-ever-after.
This "Masterpiece" isn't likely to assuage NEA dissenters, but it's worth a couple of evenings for those who've acquired the taste.