'Copperfield' speaks to the 'me' culture

'I have a favorite son," wrote Charles Dickens by way of introduction to his beloved novel, "and his name is David Copperfield."

And now Masterpiece Theatre (PBS, April 16 and 17, check local listings) has filmed it with a distinguished cast, many of whom are familiar to American audiences. Warm, funny, scary, and tragic by turns, the film is everything it should be.

Tom Wilkinson ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Full Monty") narrates, and his mellifluous voice sets the tone for the whole film. We watch Davey (Daniel Radcliffe) grow up, see his fortunes change for the worse and then again for the better, as he loses his mother and is left to the mercies of a sadistic stepfather. But the hero of a Dickens novel is usually on a journey of discovery - all toward goodness - and David Copperfield especially.

Through all his adventures in childhood and young manhood, David is guided by a strong moral sense, a loving heart, and a noble spirit. "Never be mean in anything," his aunt tells him. "Never be false, never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, and I can always be hopeful of you."

But all around him there is vice. His school fellow James Steerforth (Oliver Milburn) is false, his stepfather is cruel, and his solicitor's clerk, Uriah Heep (Nicholas Lyndhurst), is mean-spirited and cruel. Throughout his life, David is sometimes a victim, and sometimes a hero who rescues victims. Warmly human, he grows in wisdom before our eyes.

Dickens appreciated intelligence and goodness in women. And while David's first wife, Dora, is childlike, and his true love, Agnes Wickfield, is mild and wise, Aunt Betsy is as smart and powerful a woman as one can find in the period. And who better to play her than Maggie Smith - who gives us an exquisitely eccentric lady of many and layered emotions.

The real heartthrob in this piece, though, is young Radcliffe as the child Davey - who is as real as rain. Those wonderful eyes and cherubic face make us feel every thorn and every joy with equal truth.

Ian McKellen plays the brutish schoolmaster, Mr. Creakle, with comic relish, and Lyndhurst makes a truly creepy, unctuous, Heep - the archvillain.

Bob Hoskins plays the amusing Mr. Micawber (a character based on Dickens's own father) and paired with Imelda Staunton ("Shakespeare in Love," "Much Ado About Nothing"), the two are ingenious. The Micawbers give little Davey some respite from loneliness, and big David the key to unlock and reverse the misfortunes of his friends.

"I read the book when I was a kid, and they always made Mrs. Micawber a neurotic hysteric [in the movies]," says Mr. Hoskins in a recent telephone interview from London. "And I never got that out of it. She struck me as a hero. She sticks by him, and eventually proves he is a good man. Imelda and I agreed that she should bring out the heroism of Mrs. Micawber, and we would do it as a love story. They are actually devoted to each other."

Hoskins says that the problem with doing Dickens is that his characters are larger than life. But they are based on people Dickens knew. The temptation is to play them over the top and make them theatrical - when the trick is to make them real.

Does David Copperfield still speak to us?

"Very much so with this whole 'me' culture we have today," Hoskins says. " 'Never give a sucker an even break' is the idea. Whereas Dickens wrote of and reminds us about the welfare of the people, generosity and altruism.

"Micawber tried to live with corruption," says Hoskins, who's never had drama lessons but develops his parts by thinking in the character's voice. "He knew what Heep was doing - but it went too far and [Micawber] couldn't face being dishonest."

Two important science programs this week deserve viewer attention. The first is Walking With Dinosaurs (Discovery Channel, April 16, 7-10 p.m.). It features breathtaking animation - as good or better than Industrial Light and Magic's best efforts - by England's FrameStore, which did it for a fraction of the cost.

You feel as if you are right there moving through the interlocking stories of the "terrible lizards" of the Late Triassic period (220 million B.C.) through the Late Cretaceous (65 million B.C.). Avery Brooks intones the life-and-death dramas of each creature's struggle for survival, and we see them lay eggs, run for their lives, and fight for food as if it were the most splendid of wildlife documentaries. World-renowned scientists comment - but there is a lot of poetic license taken, too.

The second not-to-be-overlooked documentary is What's Up with the Weather? (PBS, April 18, check local listings). The issue of global warming gets fired up and cooled down - the scientific data are laid out. And the "greenhouse skeptics" have their say. It's enormously helpful to see the problem fully outlined, with obvious solutions detailed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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