Friday, June 17, 2011

David Copperfield, David Copperfield

While I was in the early stages of the move, before DirecTV was installed and I had no television at all, one of the best DVDs that I watched was one that my father had given me of the 1999 version of David Copperfield produced by the BBC. I took it in approximately hour-long bites, and given how I feel about all remakes (and Dickens in particular: The Beeb did a version of Oliver Twist in 1985 that was wretched with a capital Retch, and another one in 2007 that I'll never watch -- Nancy played by a black woman? I don't think so!), it came as a surprise that I liked it so well.

At its exact center is Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood. I'll watch Maggie Smith in anything, but her performance here is just delightful. Miss Trotwood is one of Dickens's best female characters, and Ms. Smith really shakes the trees to bring her to life. And she's not the only one. Just look at the cast list over at imdb. But, in particular, Trevor Eve as Murdstone and Zoe Wannamaker as his sister, Sir Ian as Creakle. . . and more. On the whole, I don't think that any version of Copperfield has ever been this well-cast. Plus, the producers didn't mess around with Dickens, instead focusing on what the Beeb used to do better than almost anyone: faithful realizations of classic British dramas that look and sound gorgeous.

At well over two hours, the 1935 MGM version of David Copperfield is an extraordinarily long movie for the period, and even then there's much compression and shortening. It aired on TCM a few days ago, and I hadn't seen it since I was a Young Thing -- and then not from the beginning. On many levels I found it disappointing. I've loved many other of George Cukor's movies, especially including Gaslight, but, I suppose necessarily, this one left me feeling exactly the way the film version of The World According to Garp did. Too much novel crammed into too little film real estate.

When it's good, it's very good. Davey's slow walk and his reunion with Aunt Betsy are terrific. But there's a distinct feeling that we're getting the Classics Illustrated version of the story.

And to a great extent the casting compares unfavorably to the BBC version. Oh, Edna May Oliver as Miss Trotwood was probably the best they could have chosen at the time, and she has great fun with it, but she's no Maggie Smith. And Basil Rathbone gives, I think, one of the worst performances of his career as Murdstone. Good casting, or so one would think: but Rathbone is a scary enough guy when he's being subtle, and there's nothing of subtlety to what he does here. Snarl, rage, chew on the draperies: it's a big performance in a part that's more effectively played quietly.

Jesse Ralph as Peggotty is kind of scary and artificial compared the genuine qualities Pauline Quirke brings to the role in the British version. And in the 1935 version we don't get to see Creakle at all: Young Davey's school years are brushed past with a line of dialogue. This is particularly damaging to the story, as Steerforth isn't introduced until he's all grown up -- and without knowing the details of their school years together, it's frankly hard to understand why David thinks so highly of Steerforth in the first place.

But there are three actors here who, imho, blow away the cast of the BBC version like so many toy soldiers. First, someone named Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick. He would die just a year after this film was made. There's nothing wrong with what Ian McNiece does in the BBC version, but I can see him acting. By comparison, Pawle has the genuine appearance of good-natured simple-mindedness. You all know what I mean.

Then there's Roland Young as Uriah Heep. I simply can not believe this is the same man who played Topper. It can't be possible! But it is. Nicholas Lyndhurst is good casting in the British version, but there's a trick to playing Uriah Heep that Lyndhurst didn't work out: Heep must be, in equal parts, sickeningly smarmy and unsettling, but also nonthreatening. Too insignificant to be taken seriously. Young actually appears to be sincere in certain of his kind words towards David. You can see why David (and the others surrounding Heep) could be put off-balance by this person. The magnitude of his villainy needs to come with at least a measure of surprise. Lyndhurst doesn't succeed at that. His Heep is slimy all the way, from the get-go.

Last, but certainly not least, is W.C. Fields in the role he was born to play, Wilkins Micawber. Fields was a great fan of Dickens in real life, Micawber was one of his proudest roles. Now, I like Bob Hoskins a lot, and I even liked his Micawber -- but Fields is The Man.

He is good for the role and the role is good for him. It's nice to see Fields playing someone who doesn't hate women and children, someone with a little bit of the hero about him, who is both a protector and someone who needs protection; someone who pays his debts when and how he can, and who for all his lesser qualities is nonetheless fiercely loyal. Nobility looks good on Fields, and so does Micawber's Fancy Dress. It's almost as if Dickens had Fields in mind when he wrote the part.

The pairing of these two Great Men, the one real and the other fictional, is a high-water mark in movie history. If the 1935 David Copperfield had nothing else to recommend it (and it does), W. C. Micawber would be reason enough to call it a classic.

-- Freder.

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