When I was writing my post about two movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, my original plan was to do a quick summary of my thoughts on my favorite adaptation, the BBC’s 1999 two-part miniseries. Maybe something along the lines of “it has great production design, courtesy of Roger Cann, some beautiful locations, mainly in Hampshire for the Dover residence of Betsey Trotwood (Maggie Smith), an excellent musical score, courtesy of Rob Lane, and a cast to make fans of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies weep.” But by the time I reached the end, I decided that the post was so long that it needed to end as quickly as it could without being anticlimactic. And why should I devote paragraphs and paragraphs to adaptations of David Copperfield that weren’t my favorite and only one to the adaptation that is?
Well, one reason was that I feel like the works of art or entertainment that I completely love or completely hate don’t make for the most interesting posts. The ones that have some good and some bad make for more interesting reading if you ask me. But, on reflection, there are enough things about this generally wonderful miniseries that aren’t great to keep this a bit interesting. One thing in particular.
But I’d like to lead into it with something about this David Copperfield that is the best of any adaptation. That’s young Daniel Radcliffe as the protagonist during most of the first episode which focuses on the character’s childhood. This might not seem like high praise at first. When he’s a kid, David’s characterBy the way, I feel a bit uncomfortable calling him David. You see, basically ever character in the book calls him by a different name in keeping with that character’s social status, personality … Continue reading is mainly defined by being cute. But that’s harder to do in a movie or a play than you’d think. It works great in the book but for a young actor to mainly try to be cute for long can easily fall flat.Another issue is that what makes young David’s characterization so great in the book is so how well Dickens gets in the head of someone so young. A movie or a TV show can only show the … Continue reading Radcliffe, however, never feels like he’s trying to be cute. He just naturally comes across that way, and it works wonderfully.
It seems to be kind of a tradition with movies or series where a character is played by one actor in his youth and another in his maturity that one of those actors be much better than the other. Sadly, this David Copperfield is a case in point. Ciaran McMenamin is easily the worst adult David Copperfield I’ve seen with his inexpressive face and his dull line readings. I’m honestly baffled as to why he was cast, especially when everyone around him in this series is so great. Maybe part of the fault lies with the script, which always seems to have him saying to the other, better cast characters, “oh, Character X, don’t have this interesting emotion. Be boring like me.” OK, not really, but that’s how it sounds.Harry Lloyd also makes more of an impression as the younger version of David’s false friend, James Steerforth, than Oliver Milburn does as the older version, but the gap between the two is … Continue reading
How can this possibly be my favorite David Copperfield adaptation when it has my least favorite David Copperfield?Not only are Frank Lawton and Dev Patel better than he is, by the way, but so is Hugh Dancy from the 2000 made-for-TV movie, which I won’t be reviewing. And so is…well, let’s not … Continue reading Well, that has to do with the story’s structure. It’s really a collection of subplots seen through the eyes of the main character. It doesn’t feel like his own problems are more important than that of his friends. For many major scenes, he’s an observer, a supporting player, a chroniclerThough it’s worth noting that in Dickens’s version, unlike the 2019 movie, David never intended his memoir with all its potentially unflattering information to be published., not the center of the action. He’s not as important as the title character of your average Dickens story. That’s how I feel anyway. Other fans may differ in their opinions.
There are actually three actors who portray David Copperfield in this series. Besides Radcliffe and McMenamin, there’s also Tom Wilkinson who provides voiceover narration as an older David looking back on his life. He sets exactly the right tone, communicating warm nostalgia and regret for whichever the scene requires, sometimes both at once.
If I were to criticize anyone in the cast besides McMenamin, it’d be Amanda Ryan as David’s ultimate love interest, Agnes Wickfield-which says awesome things about the cast since even she does a great job at conveying the pain of her unrequited love. (Unrequited until the end, of course.) The problem is she doesn’t really convey much else. Again, this might be the fault of the writing. Watching the series, you get the impression she was screenwriter Adrain Hodges’s least favorite character from the book, at least of the ones included in this adaptation, and that he struggled to find what to do with her. To be honest, I get that. Agnes is my least favorite of the A-list David Copperfield characters, but I’ve seen her come across as having greater emotional range and charm in other adaptations. I wish this one could have found the time to show her friendly teasing of David over his many crushesDavid Copperfield is the Dickensian protagonist with the highest number of love interests. Apparently, he takes after his father who, according to his aunt, “was always running after wax dolls … Continue reading or her misplaced guilt over her father (Oliver Ford Davies)’s problems or her stubborn faith that “real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.” As it is, her character is pretty much defined by being sad.
Most of the casting is superb. Even some people I’ve encountered who don’t like Dickens will admit he knew how to write villains you love to hate, and David Copperfield delivers on this. Trevor Eve is chilling as the abusive stepfather, Edward Murdstone and Zoe Wanamaker is perfect as his equally sadistic sister, Jane. I’ve seen a lot of great Miss Murdstones, but Wanamaker really takes the cake and eats it too. The way she takes the household keys from David’s mother (Emilia Fox-a little too old for the role but, granting that, she’s great), puts them in her hard steel purse like she’s taking them prisoner and snaps it shut convinced me that I was seeing the literary character in the flesh.
Also perfect is the raspy, nearly inaudible voice that Ian McKellan gives the abusive schoolmaster, Mr. Creakle. Incidentally, the character of his wife is cut, and he gets her role of trying to break bad news gently to young David in one memorable scene. This was probably done to save the expense of another actor rather than to add humanity to Creakle but it works for me.
As Uriah Heep, Nicholas Lyndhurst is stiff and cold, delivering his character’s insincere groveling like he’s reading from cue cards, rather than slimy and serpentine as Dickens describes him. But he’s just as palpably creepy and monstrous.
On to the good guys. As David’s great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood, Maggie Smith isn’t as awesomely over-the-top as Edna Mae Oliver was and the scene where she tells the Murdstones what’s wrong with them isn’t quite as satisfying. But she shows more of the character’s subtle but unmistakable character arc as she grows more tolerant and easygoing through her relationship with her great-nephew. She doesn’t get as much depth as in the book, of course, with so many subplots to juggle and only three hours, but she gets more of it than in several other adaptations. And Smith gets to have fun too, most notably in the character’s unforgettable introductory scene.
In my last David Copperfield post, I lamented that the subplot of Dr. Strong and his wife is always cut by adaptations, including this one, not so much for its own sake as for the depth it gives to Betsey Trotwood’s mentally disabled friend, Mr. Dick (Ian McNeice.) Here he’s once again reduced to a goofy supporting character. Still, McNeice brings more humanity to the role than Lennox Pawle did in 1935. If only the miniseries gave him more opportunity to show it.
Another thing I lamented in that previous post was how both the 1935 and 2019 movie adaptations reduced Mrs. Micawber (Imelda Staunton here) to a pathetic comic figure. That’s not so here. She gets as many dramatic moments as you’d wish with the time limitations. So does Bob Hoskins as her kooky husband, Wilkins. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get plenty of humorous moments too, most notably the bit where Micawber fails to commit suicide and then cheerfully inquires about breakfast.If you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering if that’s normal for him. Yes. Yes, it is. Sorry, I’ve still got Phineas and Ferb on the brain.
I don’t know why of all the minor comic relief characters in the book, this miniseries insisted on retaining David’s alcoholic landlady, Mrs. Crupp (Dawn French.) But I’ll be forever grateful to them for it. French is hilarious and she and Maggie Smith do a great job of playing off each other in the one scene they share.
My proofreader has told me before that the reviews where I list practically every member of the cast and state my opinion on their performance are among my more boring ones. But I really couldn’t resist doing that for this miniseries. There are so many great actors and characters that I haven’t gotten to yet!
With the court’s indulgence, I’d like to treat one more of them individually: Joanna Page as David’s ditzy first wife, Dora Spenlow. Watching her, you both totally buy that David would be infatuated with her cuteness and that actually living with her would drive him crazy.
It helps that McMenamin’s David is more expressive when he’s exasperated by Dora than at any other point.
I wish the series had shown the couple having a fight and then making up, as the 1935 movie did, to really flesh out their relationship. But it’s amazing how much depth and nuance the miniseries gives it even without that.
Depth and nuance are what I really appreciate about this adaptation. More than your average Dickens book, a major part of what makes David Copperfield compelling is how so many of its characters turn out to be more complicated than they seem when we first meet them. Too many retellings of the story focus solely on capturing the characters’ memorable quirks without properly developing their emotional journeys or retaining their moments of self-awareness. This one might not be able to include every bit of character development or nuance from the book, but you can tell that character development and nuance were the main goals of Adrian Hodges and director Simon Curtis, and they focused on them without skimping on humorous character quirks. And while not every subplot from the book was included and the ones that were included sometimes feel a tad rushed, none of them feel more rushed than others. Each one is given equal weight.Contrast this with the 2000 TV movie that underdeveloped the storyline of Steerforth and the Peggotty family and the 1969 one that underdeveloped everything else.
Another thing about the book, David Copperfield, that this adaptation prioritizes is how much of it is about life itself with its ups and downs. It shows a lot of cute babiesThey’re cute in this miniseries, I mean. I don’t remember them being described that way in the book., representing birth, and a lot of scenes of people grieving for lost loved ones, representing death. Not that this story has as high of a body count as some Dickens books. In fact, the ending has been quite reasonably criticized for indulging in wish fulfillment. The ultimate fate of the improvident Micawber family, in particular, has been described as unbelievable. But this adaptation creates a heartwarming moment between the husband and wife that reconciles me to the ending. (I’d include an image, but I don’t want to spoil too much.)
When it comes to heartwarming ways to waste three hours in front of the TV, I’d rank this David Copperfield right up there with The Sound of Music.
|By the way, I feel a bit uncomfortable calling him David. You see, basically ever character in the book calls him by a different name in keeping with that character’s social status, personality and relationship to him. David is what his evil stepfamily calls him, and I don’t want to sound like one of them. But none of his nicknames (Davy, Doady, Daisy, etc.) feel natural to me. I’ve thought of coming up with a nickname for him of my own. (D.C.?) But I haven’t come up with one I really like yet and David falls naturally from my tongue.
|Another issue is that what makes young David’s characterization so great in the book is so how well Dickens gets in the head of someone so young. A movie or a TV show can only show the character from the outside, so to speak.
|Harry Lloyd also makes more of an impression as the younger version of David’s false friend, James Steerforth, than Oliver Milburn does as the older version, but the gap between the two is narrower than between Radcliffe and McMenamin.
|Not only are Frank Lawton and Dev Patel better than he is, by the way, but so is Hugh Dancy from the 2000 made-for-TV movie, which I won’t be reviewing. And so is…well, let’s not compare him to every other actor I’ve seen in the role. That might just be depressing.
|Though it’s worth noting that in Dickens’s version, unlike the 2019 movie, David never intended his memoir with all its potentially unflattering information to be published.
|David Copperfield is the Dickensian protagonist with the highest number of love interests. Apparently, he takes after his father who, according to his aunt, “was always running after wax dolls from his cradle.” In the modern vernacular, she would probably have said “barbie dolls.”
|If you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering if that’s normal for him. Yes. Yes, it is. Sorry, I’ve still got Phineas and Ferb on the brain.
|Contrast this with the 2000 TV movie that underdeveloped the storyline of Steerforth and the Peggotty family and the 1969 one that underdeveloped everything else.
|They’re cute in this miniseries, I mean. I don’t remember them being described that way in the book.