Charles Dickens' most modern novel, "Hard Times," a biting attack on the squalor triggered by industrialization in Victorian England, has been starkly re-created by "Masterpiece Theatre."
This is not the Dickens we're used to reading or seeing. For one thing, as host Russell Baker tells us, this is the only time Dickens leaves us without a happy ending. In addition, the tone and style of "Hard Times" is markedly moodier than "Martin Chuzzlewit," another Dickens work that has been playing on "Masterpiece Theatre" the last five weeks.
Of course, there are comically Dickensian buffoons. Most notable is a boisterously self-inflated Alan Bates as a banker-merchant-manufacturer named Josiah Bounderby. (What would we do without those Dickens names?!) His brother-in-arms is Thomas Gradgrind (Bob Peck), a dour, facts-only proponent of a hard-eyed philosophy of the day called Utilitarianism, whose byproducts are mirrored in squalid towns, pollution and hissing factories, caught in quick, telling images.
Dickens' anger is best expressed by a young woman (the ethereal Beatie Edney) who's been emotionally bludgeoned under an economic and class system that prioritizes the "bottom line" over human compassion.
Critics attacked the novel in 1854 for being too political, but George Bernard Shaw would later call "Hard Times" Dickens' most visionary work, and, in truth, at least as depicted here by British adapter-director Peter Barnes, it does ring with contemporary resonance.
* "Hard Times" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.