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Little Dorrit

Primarily set in the institution of debtor’s prison, this shouldn’t resonate so deeply but it does, because these days it feels like the entire world has become a debtor’s prison.

Little Dorrit

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay, Judy Parfitt, Andy Serkis, Alun Armstrong, Eddie Marsan
Network: BBC
US release date: 2009-04-28

There is an eerie currency to Little Dorrit. With its entwined concerns of the weighty primacy of debt and money -- which ripple out into complementary themes of destitute imprisonment and greedy social climbing; Ponzi pyramid scams and scandalous secrets dredged into the light; and sudden good fortune and the misfortune it inevitably entails -- one could make the case that Dickens’ sprawling late period novel is timelier now than it was even upon its publication in 1857. Primarily set in the very odd, and long obsolete, institution of debtor’s prison, it shouldn’t resonate so deeply and awfully, but it does, perhaps because, given the current economic crisis, it feels like the entire world has become a debtor’s prison.

Vast and densely plotted, as most Dickens’ novels are; and chockfull of richly drawn, vividly realized, brilliantly named characters, ranging from the sympathetically pure to the monstrously grotesque, as most Dickens’ novels are; and painting a world so exuberant and teeming with an overabundance of life in all its beauty, wonder and ugliness, as most Dickens’ novels are, Little Dorrit presents challenges inevitable to bringing any adaptation to the screen. To wit, just how to cram it all in; and how and where to cut and trim, without sacrificing what makes Dickens so great – the sprawl, the grotesquerie, the liveliness -- and, of course, the realization and resolution of the great themes and concerns that are so key to his novels.

This 2008 BBC production does its game best to streamline the rambling narrative into something tenable for broadcast, without sacrificing the tangents, incidental characters, and nested subplots that are generally Dickens’ chief strengths and true seat of his genius. To this end, the series plays up the romantic melodrama and core mystery that forms the central engine of the plot, and relegates much of the biting satire and social commentary to the background (though it is well preserved, and comes to the fore in key spots). It’s a conscious and necessary decision by screenwriter Andrew Davies (who also adapted the BBC’s triumphant recent series of Bleak House, and of course, famously, the much ballyhooed 1995 miniseries, Pride and Prejudice), and one that makes for a very entertaining eight hours of television that never becomes ponderous or didactic, but neither loses its timeliness.

In the making of documentary included with the program, Davies and producer Lisa Osborne both make mention of this adaptation being influenced as much by soaps as by Dickens’ text. Each episode metes out clues and revelations in precise doses to keep the viewer enthralled, and is arced to conclude with cliffhangers, to keep the audience gasping and then chattering away about what ever will come next. Of course, this is exactly how Dickens himself operated while publishing his novels, which were released serially in installments in popular magazines. We tend to think of his novels as these big, monolithic doorstops that came out all at once, but they were actually released in chunks, and operated much like our serialized television dramas do today. So it’s only appropriate and right that the form of the adaptation mirrors this.

And so what do we have, then, here? Little Dorrit is full up with elements common to Dickens, familiar to anyone who’s read his novels, especially his later period. So we have ridiculous plots and subplots, and subplots within subplots, that are all tied together by ludicrous coincidence and circumstance. We have orphans, and foundlings of mysterious origin; we have hidden connections between otherwise unrelated characters, and dark buried secrets that have remained dormant too long; we have sniveling villains and saintly heroines; we have the proud and the base, the humble and poor and proud and rich; we have humanity, in all its effulgent vitality and ugliness. And we have money, always money, and the havoc it wreaks, on the world and on the soul.

We open in the Marshalsea Prison, the most famous of Britain’s debtor’s prisons (and where Dickens’ own father spent three months for a piddling amount), and the birth of the daughter of its most famous inhabitant, William Dorrit. We jump 20 years or so, and the Dorrit family still languishes in prison. Dorrit presides over the Marshalsea as an admixture of genial patriarch and the butt of ridicule – he is named the Lord of the Marshalsea, somewhat facetiously, and he is waited and doted upon by his youngest daughter (the one born in the prison), Amy. His two other children are lazy, bratty ingrates, imagining themselves higher than their station, and only add fuel to Dorrit’s delusions of grandeur and pride.

Amy, in the meantime, carries on attending to them all, and working outside of the prison to keep the family afloat (it was an odd requirement, out of many oddities, of debtor’s prison to have inmates pay their own way, which makes you wonder how anyone could ever get themselves out of the place without some strike of unlooked for fortune). She is hired by the crotchety, irascible Mrs. Clennam, of the once illustrious, now decrepit House of Clennam. Her keen interest in Amy is just the first of many mysteries that start to build right out of the gate. The return of Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur from abroad – come home to reclaim the family business and set a past injustice aright – then ignites the convoluted plot that will unspool over the eight hours and 14 episodes of the series.

It would be irresponsible of me to go into too great detail about the plot, because of course, in the unraveling and the revelations lie one of the key joys of Dickens. The series ricochets from plot to plot – not always elegantly, but so briskly as to never let up for a moment or yield to tedium. And the convoluted narrative winds up – as it inevitably does, with Dickens – in an even more convoluted and confusing resolution, when the truth and revelations finally all come racing and converging together and crashing down around the characters heads (here, quite literally) in the most over the top manner possible.

And ah, but the characters! Oh, the characters, and their wonderful names, and quirks, and ticks, and little catch phrases and eccentricities. Because, while the plots get us in the door, it’s always the characters which make us stay with Dickens, the characters we remember and recall so dearly. And Little Dorrit is full up with them, to the point where they threaten to drown out the story.

And with Dickens, so much of the richness is reserved for the support players, the secondary characters. So we have the skulking, bellowing Mr. Flintwitch (Alun Armstrong, who’s made a career out of playing skulking, bellowing Dickens’ characters), Mrs. Clennam’s attendant and lackey; and Mr. Pancks, the sputtering, rambunctious rent collector and part time private detective (played by the wonderful character actor Eddie Marsan, lately seen as a sputtering, rambunctious racist driving instructor in Happy -Go-Lucky); and the doltish and relentlessly cheery fop Edmund Sparkler; and the Barnacle clan, denizens of the hellish Circumlocution Office (stand in for the British Treasury), the bureaucratic hell where all good ideas and claims go to die; and the mustache twirling, hissing villain Rigaud/Blandois (played by Andy Serkis, who famously hissed villainously as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings).

But the core cast more than ably acquit themselves against the vast background cast. Veteran British actor Tom Courtenay plays William Dorrit with affecting and heartrending brilliance, full of raging pride and cowering vulnerability. From the pathos of his life in prison to his abrupt transformation into arrogant social climber, blinded by ideas of propriety at the expense of his soul, Courtenay walks a tightrope that plays on our sympathies even as we turn from Dorrit in disgust.

Matthew Macfadyen, as Arthur Clennam, the benefactor of the Dorrit family, is the proper admixture of determination and sympathy, of humaneness and patience, as he tries to restore the Dorrit name while also doing right by the dying words of his own father, who begged him to “set it right”.

And of course, at the center of this all is our titular heroine, Amy, who may be the best of Dickens’ pure, young resourceful heroines. It’s a tough role, and a thankless role (at least, for the character), as the character demands the portrayal of a genuinely good person, selfless and loving unconditionally, even as she receives to thanks or gratitude or reward. And of course, thanks and reward are the furthest things from her mind, which just makes her all the more saintly. All credit to newcomer Claire Foy, who manages to nail Amy Dorrit perfectly without making her into a martyr or a simp. She is sympathetic without ever falling prey to the sentimentality inherent in other Dickens’ heroines (most notoriously, Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop). It’s a brauva performance, and, much like how Amy binds everything and everyone together through ruin and riches, so does Foy ground and center the cast and series.

Little Dorrit is not the most famous, nor the most popular, nor the most critically acclaimed of Dickens’ novels. But it is one of his best and richest, balancing the spirit of the rollicking, lighthearted early novels with the darkening clouds and social commentary of his later works. It is perhaps closest in spirit to Bleak House, though not as…um… ah, bleak as that masterwork. So if it feels a bit less specific and forceful in its thrust than that great novel, then it makes it all the more malleable and relevant to the concerns of the world today, and gives it the immortality and significance it so rightly deserves.

The DVD release contains a gallery of stills from the film, and a making-of featuerette which makes the most of its 45-minutes by packing in a vast amount of information, detail and anecdote into a really tight space. Consisting of interviews with the cast, the producer, the directors and screenwriter, the feature covers a lot of turf, ranging from an overview of Dickens and his work; the challenges of adapting such a large, unwieldy text; and various musings on the odd history of debtor’s prisons. It’s much more entertaining and exciting than it sounds on paper, largely due to the enthusiasm of everyone involved, especially screenwriter Andrew Davies, a model of impish exuberance, who seems finely tuned to the letter and spirit of Dickens.


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