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Masterpiece Theatre's "David Copperfield" adds a lustrous new dimension to the classic tale.

A Shining Gem

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Think of "David Copperfield" as the Christmas present that came 3« months late. Because to us here in the United States, that's precisely what it is. The BBC commissioned a new TV telling of Charles Dickens' beloved masterpiece as its holiday gift to the United Kingdom for 1999. Now we get a look at this two-part 3«-hour production courtesy of PBS-TV.

And what a delightful, charming and heartwarming present it is.

Based loosely on his own benighted journey from boyhood to manhood, Dickens' "David Copperfield" is the epic story of a pampered child whose widowed mother marries badly. Sent far from home at a tender age to a wretched boarding school by his stepfather, young David bears the death of his mother only through the love of his childhood nurse, Peggoty, and with the help of an older school chum, Steerforth.

Befriended and helped by many — the merry fishermen Daniel and Ham Peggoty, the jaunty Mr. Micawber, the always willing Mr. Barkis, the lovely Agnes Wickfield and her father, and eventually his aunt Betsey and her befuddled Mr. Dick — and beset by others — a sadistic schoolmaster, a terrifying stepfather and his beastly sister and the unctuous Uriah Heep — David grows into an adulthood first marred by more tragedy, then tempered by sincere love and contentment.

Graced with a cast that reads like a Who's Who of British dramatic talent — many of whom have also enjoyed distinguished success in the U.S. — and filmed with the panoramic vistas, lush palette and meticulous attention to period detail of a Merchant-Ivory production, "David Copperfield" grabs viewers intellectually and emotionally from the instant it begins and never lets go until "The End" crawls across the screen.

Directed brilliantly by Simon Curtis, the all-star cast of "David Copperfield" makes this 1999 production soar far above the 1935 U.S. movie version. It equals, if not surpasses, the 1969 version starring Edith Evans and Laurence Olivier.

Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran McMenamin as the young and mature Davids are innocently courageous and romantically heroic in turn. Trevor Eve as the stepfather and Zo‰ Wannamaker as the stepfather's severe sister summon up childhood's darkest fears, and Ian McKellen's cruel, venomous schoolmaster will be a template for generations of Dickensian actors to come. Bob Hoskins shines in the role of the ever-optimistic Mr. Micawber, Pauline Quirk as Peggoty is goodness and motherly love personified, and Nicholas Lyndhurst will make your flesh crawl as the ingratiating Uriah Heep. Maggie Smith's performance as David's Aunt Betsey is almost guaranteed Emmy material. And in an odd but eminently justifiable bit of stunt casting, Harry Lloyd — a descendant of Dickens himself — sharpens to a fine point the character of Steerforth, who befriends young Copperfield at his most vulnerable.

"David Copperfield" is that rarest of gems — a truly masterful adaptation of a much-loved novel that not only does justice to the original story, but adds a lustrous dimension that only serves to increase its dynamic power for new

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