8 May 2010
Dear Nan F., THANK YOU for sending this recommendation, because there is nothing better designed to end all of those end-of-semester pains than a 452-minute BBC mini-series (for the math-averse, that’s about 7 ½ hours. 7 ½!!). At some point during the final episode last night, I turned to my partner and said, “I have no idea where this is going!” with utter delight.
Ah, the Dickensian aspect, as they called it in “The Wire.” A tangle of characters, high and low; base greed and social posturing contrasted with utter selflessness and love; fools, knaves, and murderers — oh, THANK YOU for “Little Dorrit” during what felt like the 75th week of the semester.
Charles Dickens was a master at writing diverting tales for the serials; early installments of these stories invariably introduced a crazy range of characters at all levels of society. “Little Dorrit” tells us right away that there is a mystery surrounding the hard-on-its-luck Dorrit family: William Dorrit has been locked in the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, for so long that his children know no other home. Although he retains pretentions associated with his former social position, his older son and daughter have adopted the working-class accents and weak characters of the low-born. But not his youngest, Amy, or “Little Dorrit” (Claire Foy). One look at her enormous blue eyes and we know she’s our heroine, especially because she deals as lovingly and generously with her family’s weaknesses as with that of the snobbish Mrs. Clennam, who hires Amy to sew for her.
We also learn right away that Mrs. Clennam has hired Amy out of some kind of misplaced guilt for her role in bringing about the Dorrits’ misfortunes. Moreover, her son, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), back in London after twenty years in China, begins to suspect the same on seeing his bitter mother’s uncharacteristic kindness to Amy. Arthur undertakes to learn the Dorrits’ history as a means of obeying his father’s cryptic deathbed wish: to “make it right.” Yet when he presses his mother for more information, she angrily shuts him out from her life.
The series was directed by a team led by Emmy Award winner Dearbhla Walsh, and written by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who’s apparently never found a nineteenth-century novel too lengthy or convoluted to tackle as a miniseries. To wit, his credits include:
- “Middlemarch” (1994)
- “Pride and Prejudice” (1995)
- “Wives and Daughters” (1999)
- “The Way We Live Now” (2001)
- “Bleak House” (2005)
- “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)
…and he’s now reportedly taking on more Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, as well as other projects. Davies seems to have a love for the language and narrative flow of a nineteenth-century rambling novel, and exhibits a faithfulness to them designed to please the novel’s fans as well as mere television viewers. Granted, he often opts for broadly caricaturing his secondary characters; I bristled at the gratuitous fat jokes directed at poor Flora Finching, once engaged to Arthur but now merely a comical, overweight, desperate middle-aged fool. But let’s not be small. Faced with a cast of dozens of important figures, each with shadowy motives and personal tics, Davies leaves no doubts in the minds of his wide audience as to who’s who and how we should feel about them. No one who saw Francesca Annis as the excrable Hyacinth Gibson in “Wives and Daughters” can ever forget her.
And speaking of the tendency to go over the top, Amy Dorrit is one of those ridiculously selfless nineteenth-century heroines so out of fashion by the twentieth century. She quietly and lovingly tends to her slightly mad father just as she does for anyone else who might need her, never putting her own desires ahead of another’s. Unlike the long-suffering heroines of Jane Eyre or The Wide, Wide World — women who couldn’t resolve their own suffering because they are women — Little Dorrit is the epitome of goodness and contentment; her only source of misery is her unrequited love for Arthur. In fact, Arthur is her perfect mate, as his motivations are similar to Amy’s: to resolve others’ unhappiness. Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5” and the appalling recent film version of “Pride and Prejudice”) plays the role of Arthur to perfection: at middle age he is neither so slim nor so marriageable as he once was, and he finds himself drawn far more seriously to his charity work than to his occupation or love life. I even thought during “Little Dorrit” that Macfadyen has reached that stage when he must make a switch in roles, for rather than grow in handsomeness over time like Richard Armitage or George Clooney, his face has become goofier somehow, making me hope he might take on comedic or character roles rather than persist in trying to be the handsome young lead.
So for those of you facing stacks of research papers, bluebooks, and complaints about grades, please consider indulging in a few evenings of Dickensian diversion. And once again, Nan F., thank you.