For Dickens fans: `Pickwick' and more

Critics' picks: New DVDs

August 13, 2006|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY

THE CHARLES DICKENS COLLECTION 2: The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop -- BBC Home Video / $49.98

For a 19th-century Victorian guy, Charles Dickens produced novels that are unusually cinematic.

As the four videos in The Charles Dickens Collection 2 amply demonstrate, Dickens' stories are characterized by evocative atmospheres, muscular plots and a quick pace that rattles along as efficiently as a Hackney horse pulling a cab down cobblestone streets.

In a sense, Dickens' characterizations move swiftly as well. He draws his men with just a few strokes, highlighting their primary characteristics and eliminating everything that is unessential. In particular, his supporting characters are miracles of liveliness and verve.

That's probably because Dickens made absolutely no pretense at balance in his 19 novels. He seems too angry to be fair. For instance, he apparently had no interest in exploring the forces that drove Uriah Heep, Copperfield's primary villain, to become a duplicitous, sniveling toad.

Instead, Dickens painstakingly paints every wart on that toad in all its repulsive glory, describes every fly snapped up unsuspectingly by a slimy amphibian tongue.

On the slim chance that viewers might have difficulty distinguishing between the two types of people who inhabit Dickens' world - the good people and the bad people - the author gives his characters pointed, often satirical, names. Thus, The Old Curiosity Shop features the easily led Richard Swiveller and the virtuous Little Nell, while Pickwick pokes fun at Tracy Tupman, a rotund, womanizing bachelor.

Viewers of videos made from literature often complain that the actors bear no resemblance to the characters they have imagined. But in Dickens' case, this actually is an advantage, because his protagonists, in particular, can seem to a modern sensibility to be sanctimonious and downright sappy. These skilled actors flesh out the author's more cardboard creations with just a subtle lift of the eyebrows or a downward droop of the mouth.

The acting in these four videos uniformly is excellent, and in particular, David Copperfield has an all-star cast. The performers in this three-hour video alone include Bob Hoskins and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Micawber; Maggie Smith as David's eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood, and Tom Wilkinson as the story's narrator.

The film also stars Daniel Radcliffe as the young David Copperfield. After filming Copperfield for the BBC, Radcliffe achieved a certain celebrity by portraying another child who overcomes a hard childhood and accomplishes remarkable things - the boy wizard, Harry Potter.

Even at 18 hours, the videos necessarily lop off subplots and characters. But the BBC has a well-deserved reputation as the gold standard for film treatments of classical English literature, and for the most part, the trims are painless.

Special features

The box set, which is being released Tuesday, also includes two special features: Dickens' Favorite Child, a treatment of the autobiographical origins of David Copperfield along with behind-the-scenes footage of the filming. In addition, in An Audience With Charles Dickens: The Trial from Pickwick, actor Simon Callow reads aloud from the novel's breach-of-promise court scene.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

SIX MORAL TALES BY ERIC ROHMER: La Boulangere de Monceau, La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud's, Claire's Knee, La Carriere de Suzanne, Chloe in the Afternoon --Criterion / $99.95

Filmed between 1962 and 1972, these are stories about that most familiar of moral dilemmas: a man who is committed to one woman but tempted by another.

Rohmer's characters are flawed but recognizable and true to life, and the director eschews flashy narrative devices and camera angles.

He thinks that simple stories well-told are enough to engross viewers.

And so they are.

The box set (scheduled for release Tuesday), will be packaged with a slew of extras, including television interviews with actors, producers and critics, some rarely seen Rohmer shorts, and an afterword by filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men).

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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