In his 1857 novel, Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens penned one of the dreariest visions of London in English literature. “It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale,” Dickens wrote. “Melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the
souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows in dire despondency.” A British film that recently opened in Canada captures the dour mood of that passage to a last, tired sigh. Little Dorrit is crammed with dim, candle-lit interiors and grim faces haunted by generations of self-denial. Like the novel, it is also long: a total of six hours divided into separately presented halves. But, fortunately, the film’s cast—which includes many of Britain’s finest actors—has also captured the beguiling strangeness and broad comedy of Dickens’s characters. Their performances have made Little Dorrit a hit in England and helped it to win the Los Angeles Film Critics Association 1988 Award for best picture.
The first—and superior—half of Little Dorrit follows the misfortunes of 40-year-old Arthur Clennam. When he returns to London after 20 years of working for his merchant father in China, Arthur is overwhelmed by the gloom and commercial greed of the city. Except for a brief moment of rebellion when he tells his mother, Mrs. Clennam (played with withering severity by Joan Greenwood), that he is leaving the family business, he cannot seem to get an active grip on his life. He is crestfallen to find that the sweetheart of his youth, Flora (Miriam Margolyes), has turned into a fat, garrulous widow. And his heart withers in silence as the beautiful Minnie (Sophie Ward) goes off with a younger rival.
Indeed, the only project that bears fruit for Arthur is his desire to help the Dorrit family. Amy Dorrit (Sarah Pickering)—the Little Dorrit of the title—works as a seamstress for his mother. When the goodhearted Arthur learns that Amy’s father, William (Sir Alec Guinness), is an inmate in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, he sets out to secure his release. He eventually succeeds—but soon afterward is thrown into the Marshalsea himself, the victim of unsound investments.
Arthur’s round of bad luck takes him into the presence of some of the most captivating Dickens characters ever to make it onto celluloid. Max Wall is spellbinding as Flintwinch, Mrs. Clennam’s cagey, hunchbacked servant. His head lolling to one side, his voice working an entire register of droll innuendo, Wall accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of making ugliness charming.
But the film’s most rivetting performance comes from the great veteran Alec Guinness. He gives the imprisoned William Dorrit the seemingly effortless grace of his privileged background—all the while conveying subtle hints of the despair that lurks beneath. Amazingly, that despair deepens after Dorrit is released: prison has given his life a sense of purpose. Guinness brings his character’s unhappiness to a heart-wrenching climax in the famous scene where Dorrit, rising to address a fashionable dinner party, goes mad. “Welcome
to the Marshalsea,” he tells the astounded guests, who file out as Dorrit continues to regale an emptying room.
Throughout Dorrit’s decline, Amy nurses him. Bom and bred in the Marshalsea, she knows no life but service to her father. The devotion of the dour, mouselike young woman is both superhuman and strangely offensive. Although it seems that she was intended as a sympathetic character, her humorless self-control and aura of chronic depression make her extremely unlikable. Her presence casts a pall over the second half of the film, which is presented entirely from her point of view. Part 2 also suffers from its repetition of many events in Part 1. Director Christine Edzard has merely changed her camera angles and rewritten some of the dialogue to suggest that Amy’s vision of reality is different from Arthur’s—a ploy that does not entirely banish a sense of déjà vu. Still, Part 2 has several fine passages, including the climactic scene where Amy rescues the feverish Arthur from prison.
On the whole, Little Dorrit lacks the gusto and dramatic sweep of both Dickens’s novels and the best of the films based on them. It often has a plodding, episodic quality—even the use of passionate accompanying music by Verdi cannot hide the underlying emotional inertia. But the dialogue—often lifted directly from the novel—is wonderful. And so are the bulky period costumes and the soot-begrimed sets, which give some of the most convincing images of 19th-century London ever seen on film. Yet, finally, it is the brilliant acting that remains memorable about Little Dorrit. It stands above the movie’s faults and murky atmosphere like an isolated streetlamp in a foggy London night.
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