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Magic in a Pint Bottle: An Advance Review of PBS' "Little Dorrit"

"I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence." - Charles Dickens, "Little Dorrit"

Charles Dickens often wrote about money and his novels gave equal weight to the lives of the poor and downtrodden as they did the idle rich. But none of his novels pushed financial matters to the fore as much as his 1857 novel "Little Dorrit" did.

Ostensibly the story of the debt-ridden Dorrit family, the plot centers on young Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshallsea Prison to a father who has fallen on hard times and spent more than twenty years in the debtor's prison that serves as Little Dorrit's home. "Little Dorrit" is a story of greed, betrayal, and malice... that resonates all the more today, given our current economic crisis. Hell, there's even a fantastically prescient parallel to our own time period's Bernie Madoff in Mr. Merdle, who engages in his own Ponzi scheme to defraud and ruin many of the novel's characters. (Could this story be any more relevant to our own times? I think not.)

The sensational Little Dorrit, adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies (Bleak House) aired on BBC One as a fourteen-part mini-series last year and will premiere this weekend here in the States on PBS' Masterpiece Classic as a sumptuously adapted five-part mini-series. The cast features a virtual Who's Who of British film and television actors today, with the teeming cast of characters filled out more than admirably by Being Human's Claire Foy, Spooks' Matthew Macfadyen, Doctor Who's Freema Agyeman, Being Human's Russell Tovey, Law & Order: UK's Bill Paterson, Lord of the Rings' Andy Serkis, The Golden Compass' Tom Courtenay, Benidorm's Janine Duvitski, The Vicar of Dibley's James Fleet, Gavin & Stacey's Ruth Jones, Torchwood's Eve Myles, The Office's Mackenzie Crook, Waking the Dead's Sue Johnston, Einstein and Eddington's Anton Lesser, New Tricks' Alun Armstrong, Hotel Babylon's Emma Pierson, and New Tricks' Amanda Redman. (Whew.) All of whom turn out exceptional performances that are likely to remain with you for quite some time, especially Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen.

Written with rapier wit and dramatic flair by the incomparable Andrew Davies and beautifully directed by Dearbhla Walsh and Adam Smith, Little Dorrit is a dazzling mix of genres that offers something for everyone, whether it be the star-crossed romance between Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy) and Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen); the bizarre Svengali-like grip Miss Wade (Maxine Peake) enacts over poor Tattycoram (Freema Agyeman); the mystery of the will that Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt) seeks to conceal; the vendettas that Amy's silly sister Fanny (Emma Pierson) engages in against Mrs. Merdle (Amanda Redman), the mother of one of her suitors, Edmund Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto); and the engimatic presence of the French murderer Rigaud (Andy Serkis). That all of these seemingly diverse storylines actually come together in the end is the work of two very gifted writers: Dickens himself for constructing the plot and Davies for successfully adapting a very tricky novel with a revolving door of characters and numerous plot threads to weave together.

Holding it all together is Foy's beautifully understated performance as the oft-put-upon Amy Dorrit; she effortlessly pulls off being self-sacrificing, idealistic, and adorably charming, no mean feat at that. The expressive quality of her eyes gives Amy a lived-in sadness that is wholly at contrast to her young age. With a simple look or tilt of her head, Foy manages to imbue Amy with both a childlike belief in the goodness of others and a mature outlook on the world, from a life lived in the squalor of a debtor's prison. Yet Amy seeks to comfort those around her, including her bombastic father (Tom Courtenay), who still believes himself to be a gentleman and relishes in his role as a minor celebrity as the Father of the Marshallsea, her silly dancer sister Fanny (Pierson), and her arrogant brother Tip (Arthur Darvill). (Foy is a find and I have no doubt that she'll go on to great things; here in Little Dorrit, you can literally see the beginnings of a fine actor.)

Despite being eight hours in length, Little Dorrit speeds by with an almost reckless speed, juggling dozens of characters, locations, and situations, but it's also a thoughful and pensive piece as well. It's a gripping and timeless tale of big business and bigger egos, where greed can consume not only a man's soul but that of those around him, corrupted by the need for the excesses of wealth. It is also a savage indictment of fat cat bankers and the Treasury Department, here embodied by the maddening circular logic of the Circumlocution Office: where requests are made, papers and forms filed, and no information ever leaves the site. (My only complaint about Little Dorrit is the slightly confusing ending, which alters Dickens' serpentine original reveal ever-so slightly but still manages to be unclear itself, somewhat like the Circumlocution Office.)

For those viewers who fell in love with BBC One's last bravura adaptation of Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Little Dorrit will be a rare treat: an adaptation that deals with larger themes and issues affecting all of us but also a more intimate riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags story about a family caught in the hands of financial woe. It's a story that is at its heart about possessions--money, a pocket watch, a lost button, some fine cigars--and how, at the end of the day, like Amy Dorrit herself, we might only be left with our grace and goodwill when all else fails.

Little Dorrit launches this Sunday evening at 9 pm on PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Check your local listings for details.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the review - I watched it on YouTube and am anxiously awaiting watching in all its 42" plasma glory this sunday. I completely agree about Claire Foy and would add that Matthew Macfadyen's performance also excellent - he is subtle and completely engrossing.
Anonymous said…
I am so excited to see this. This cast is truly exceptional and I'm sure that Andrew Davies' script is top notch. And I'm particularly happy to see that it's eight hours long and that they didn't try to cram the sprawling story into a shorter time slot!
Jennifer said…
I too am really excited to see this, especially after the previews I saw after this week's encore of David Copperfield (which I also enjoyed quite a bit). Thanks for reviewing it!
par3182 said…
The sensational Little Dorrit [...] aired on BBC One as a fourteen-part mini-series last year and will premiere this weekend here in the States on PBS' Masterpiece Classic as a sumptuously adapted five-part mini-series

does that mean some of it is missing?
Jace Lacob said…

Nothing has been edited out. Rather, it's been structured in a different airing pattern here in the US. In the UK, it aired as two one-hour episodes and twelve half-hour installments. Here in the States, it's airing as five parts of varying length. Hope that clarifies that!

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