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Hello again, 'Mr. Chips'

PBS airs a new, multi-hankie version of the evergreen story about an inspiring British teacher.

October 18, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Goodbye, Mr. Chips," the latest English import from "Masterpiece Theater," is the fourth film version (including one musical) of the 1933 novelette -- or, as it is attractively described in the opening credits, "the literary property by James Hilton courtesy Turner Entertainment Co." Viewers would be well advised to keep a box of Kleenex handy, and if you are not the sort of viewer interested in things that might require you to keep a box of Kleenex handy, you may as well stay away, because the ultimate purpose of this imperfect but effective enterprise is to turn on the waterworks.

It is also helpful, though not strictly necessary, to have an interest in the life of the English boarding school, with its "houses" and headmasters and various sorts of required amusing student headgear. A surprising number of Americans -- with a new generation being trained by the "Harry Potter" canon -- do have this problem.

The story, which begins deep in the Victorian age and spans several decades, concerns Mr. Charles Chipping, a Latin teacher who after some years as a pedagogical tepid fish -- not quite a cold one -- is shaken out of middle-aged torpor by sudden love with a spunky young proto-suffragette. She teaches him how to connect with his students -- she frees his inner Chips -- and he becomes a beloved school institution.

Unavoidably, as the story of a man who stays in one place for 60 years while others come and go, the film plays out as a string of episodes rather than as a real drama. But it works well enough, and has been made with that particular transparency of style and attention to detail that are common to British-made period pieces and that make them seem (to the stateside eye, at least) so persuasively real.

The performances are also scaled to life-size. Victoria Hamilton plays Katherine, who becomes Mrs. Chips. She rides a bike and reads Shaw and knows all about catching flies with honey -- she charms the old professors right out of their beards, like Barbara Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire," and cures juvenile delinquency with picnics. Small and lovely in a normal way, she makes you believe that she could fall for a slightly dull and slightly conservative Latin teacher who's never been kissed. In this reading, she does not transform Chips so much as clarify him. Conleth Hill does good work as Chips' best friend, a philosophical German master, and the great character actor John Wood is great again here as a heavily bearded headmaster.

Martin Clunes, who played Richard Burbage in "Shakespeare in Love" and starred in the original British version of "Men Behaving Badly," comes at the title character from several angles -- one minute the dormouse, the next the avenger -- which, though at times confusing, resolve fairly well into a coherent whole. His is a less whimsical, more delicate Chips than was Robert Donat, who won an Oscar for the 1939 MGM version, but one in which we might more easily see ourselves.

As written here, he's a kind of crusader for liberal values, a scourge on the system and its embedded cruelties, fighting prejudice, snobbery, hazing and bullying, rushing through the ivied halls with his robes billowing behind like some superheroic Mr. Rogers.

Clunes, who is in his early 40s, does a fine job playing Chips through the years, and in the end is suitably heroic, embodying as he does what must be the nearly universal hope that in the end all our unspectacular life's work ultimately will be appreciated as the great gift it is.

Cue the tears.


`Masterpiece Theater: Goodbye, Mr. Chips'

Where: PBS

When: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Martin Clunes...Charles "Chips" Chipping

Victoria Hamilton...Katherine Bridges Chipping

Conleth Hill...Max Staefel

John Wood...Wetherby

Patrick Malahide...Ralston

Executive producer Judy Counihan. Director Stuart Orme. Writers Brian Finch, Frank Delaney, from the novelette by James Hilton.

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