David Copperfield (1999)

Film review: David Copperfield (1999), directed by Simon Curtis

davidcopperfield1999I recently made it all the way through the novel version of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (all 847 pages of 10 point font). I really enjoyed it, but I also kept wishing I could have read it in serial form (a chapter per month) rather than all at one time. It is a fascinating and convoluted story that gets wrapped up neatly, with only occasional slogs through mires of detail.

It is said to be the most autobiographical of Dickens’ work, and tells of David’s experiences at a boarding school, blacking factory, debtors’ prison, and finally finding his calling as a writer. The story came back to me gradually, and I remembered being crazy for a made-for-TV version from the days of Once Upon A Classic on PBS. I started searching for this version on the internet, but without success. However! Scrolling through the other available versions, I found one from 1999 starring Maggie Smith (perfectly cast as Miss Betsey Trotwood) and Daniel Radcliffe (as DC the younger)!

It must be incredibly difficult to transform ~900 pages into three hours, and I think the screenwriter did a remarkable job. However, the result is mostly populated by caricatures: faithful servant, evil stepfather, abusive schoolmaster, drunken landlady, scheming clerk, beautiful but poor girl, spoiled rich boy, sad widow, salty fisherman.

Completely refreshing and superbly played are the parts of Betsey Trotwood (try to categorize THIS: wronged in love and therefore dismissive of men, hater of trespassing donkeys, strong-willed protector of the abused and weak-minded) and Mr. Dick (saved from a mental institution by Miss Betsey, he spends his days working on his memoirs, trying not to let thoughts of King Charles I invade his mind, and flying a glorious kite). Daniel Radcliffe is adorable (yes, that’s the best word I can come up with). The older DC is a boring goody-goody, but that’s the way he is written.

The most entertaining part of the whole show is figuring out the cast, which is a veritable “Who’s Who” of British Film and Theater. My first thought was that the film is a prequel to Harry Potter (with Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton and Zoe Wanamaker in main roles), however it is much more than that. Other great names and faces include Bob Hoskins, Pauline Quirke (Dixon from North & South), Ian McKellen from The Lord of the Rings, Alun Armstrong (from Nicholas Nickleby and ever so much more), and a very young Harry Lloyd (Will Scarlett in BBC’s Robin Hood, and most recently Mason in Jane Eyre).

I would recommend this film as a great way to while away time if you’ve called in sick to work with strep throat for the second time in six weeks, but don’t expect to pass an exam on the original plot the next day.

3 out of 5 pots of blacking.

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