Turner Network Television's big-budget miniseries
is a great-looking saga, but some of its big-name performances fall short.
The leisurely paced four-hour miniseries certainly captures the atmosphere of 1830s London and the sharp contrast between that era's haves and have-nots.
Ireland is a fine stand-in for 19th-century England, and newcomer Hugh Dancy does well in the title role. So does little Max Dolbey, who portrays 9-year-old David throughout the opening installment.
Several in the multitude of supporting characters also perform well-particularly the villains of the piece, Anthony Edwards and Eileen Atkins as the Murdstones and Frank McCusker as Uriah Heep.
But Sally Field as Aunt Betsey and Michael Richards as Micawber overact throughout, becoming annoyances rather than key characters in this estimated $14 million retelling of Charles Dickens' soap opera about a boy who overcomes adversity, child abuse and heartbreak to ultimately find happiness.
The story is semi-autobiographical, and Dickens inserts some elements borrowed from his own life. David, like Dickens, writes a novel to rid himself of his childhood demons.
True, Aunt Betsey and Micawber are meant to be eccentric, but the actors take their roles over the top. Richards' character, unlike Kramer, is bald. Nonetheless, he often becomes his
alter ego through frequent mugging and pratfalls.
David, in the narrator, recalls his childhood with his widowed mother as "nothing but sunlight," until "the shadow fell"-referring to his mother's wedding to the stern Mr. Murdstone. His stepfather's sister, whom he usually addresses as "Jane Murdstone," also moves in.
About an hour into the story, we see his stepfather viciously caning little David and shipping him off to a bleak boarding school. He only returns home after his mother's death, to work in the bowels of Murdstone's sweatshop.
At the end of part one, David runs away from the Murdstones to live with his aunt in the English countryside. While there, he befriends another only child, Agnes, the daughter of Aunt Betsey's lawyer, Mr. Wickfield.
Along the way, we see the obsequious Uriah Heep become Mr. Wickfield's partner and hire Micawber. It turns out that Heep's rise is fueled by blackmail: Wickfield is led to believe he had lost a client's diamonds while drunk.
Micawber, who learns by accident that Heep has hidden those diamonds in what Al Gore would call a lockbox, and David then orchestrate Heep's arrest.
David's love life has its own trials and tribulations. When he tells Agnes about his love for Dora, Agnes hides her true feelings until much later. But as Shakespeare once said, "All's well that ends well."
Backstage kudos go to executive producers Robert Halmi Jr. and David V. Picker, director Peter Medak-aside from letting the overacting of Field and Richards get past them-and screenwriter John Goldsmith.
will bow at 8 p.m. on Dec. 10 and 11, with four repeats during December.