Eccentric, You Say? No, a Labor of Love : It Took Years, a Cast of 250 and Six Hours of Film to Bring Dickens' 'Little Dorrit' to the Screen

To make a six-hour, two-movie version of Charles Dickens' least-known book is an act of cinematic bravery that some people would say verges on the eccentric.

But director Christine Edzard and producer Richard Goodwin, the husband-and-wife team behind "Little Dorrit," have had their faith in the project rewarded. In Britain, the critics hailed it as the finest adaptation of a Dickens novel since David Lean's "Great Expectations" 40 years ago, and it ran for seven months in a top London cinema. Now they are waiting to see whether "Little Dorrit," which opens in Los Angeles Wednesday, will repeat its success in America.

Edzard and Goodwin have considerably more clout than most British film makers. Goodwin is the partner of Lord Brabourne (son-in-law of the late Lord Mountbatten), with whom he has produced some of Britain's most successful movies, including "Murder on the Orient Express," "Death on the Nile" and David Lean's "A Passage to India."

"We're different from most people," says Goodwin. "We put the money we make from our films back into the business, like shopkeepers." Twelve years ago, he and his wife bought two warehouses on the banks of the Thames in London's Docklands and converted them into their own private film studio, Sands Films. It is here that all but one shot of "Little Dorrit" was filmed.

Despite a modest budget (around $8.6 million), Goodwin and Edzard also managed to persuade just about every top actor in England to appear in the film. The 250-strong cast--a veritable A-Z of British Actors' Equity--includes Sir Alec Guinness (who appeared in "A Passage to India"), Cyril Cusack, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley and the late Joan Greenwood. "It became 'in' to do a part in 'Little Dorrit,' " says its director. "Everybody was terribly reasonable because they thought it was a worthwhile project. It's the sort of thing British actors will do for a proper British film."

The couple married 20 years ago, after meeting on the set of Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet," of which Goodwin was associate producer. Edzard, who was born in Paris and trained there as a stage designer, was working in the props department. They have one daughter, Sabine, 17, who was, as they say, "raised among the film cans."

At 43, Edzard is shy and withdrawn and it is hard to imagine her directing her vast army of actors. Her husband, by contrast, is an expansive, outgoing man who gave up a place at Cambridge University to go into the film industry as a teaboy. He is clearly very proud of his wife. It was, he says, her passion for the book that got the project going and drove it through a gestation period worthy of Stanley Kubrick--two years of research and preparation, nine months of shooting and another nine of editing.

The studio in which the couple live and work is an extraordinary place. Overlooking the Thames at Rotherhithe, just downriver of Tower Bridge, it is a completely self-contained world, with a full-scale picture research library, a canteen serving such suitably British food as fish and chips, and 24 full-time staffers who worked on "Little Dorrit" for 18 months before the first penny of outside investment was secured.

The perfectionism of the enterprise is staggering. The cast's costumes and hats were made in the costume department according to original patterns. Fabrics were hand-printed, straw bonnets hand-plaited, collars and waistcoats hand-embroidered by Sands Films' resident embroiderer, Harry Ellam.

All the scenery and props were made in the studio--someone even hand-painted a set of dinner plates in imitation of pink Sevres China. "It would have been too expensive to buy and we like doing it," says Edzard. "We didn't hire anything on the entire film apart from coaches and horses."

The two early-19th Century warehouses that house the studio were built in Dickens' time and, with their view of the river, have a Dickensian air. This is highly appropriate. The future novelist lived in the area as a child, when his father was arrested for debt and taken to the nearby Marshalsea Debtors' Prison--the main setting for "Little Dorrit."

Dickens, who was barely 12, found lodgings and worked in a blacking factory, labelling bottles for six shillings a week. The experience of the prison and the factory haunted him all his life, and "Little Dorrit"--the novelist's most popular book in his lifetime--bore witness to that.

Its heroine, Little Dorrit (played in the film by newcomer Sarah Pickering) lives in the debtor's jail where her father (Alec Guinness) has been imprisoned for half a century. Hard-working and uncomplaining, she is one of the few virtuous characters in a world infected by greed, corruption, huge social injustices and bureaucratic indifference to the plight of the poor.

At the time of its publication (1857), "Little Dorrit" was regarded as a highly political attack on contemporary England. George Bernard Shaw said it was more seditious than Marx's "Das Kapital." The reason Edzard decided to film it was because she believes that it still has "extraordinary relevance" today.

"The original title of the book was 'Nobody's Fault,' and that notion of everyone pushing away responsibility for the problems of others is extremely relevant to today's society," she says.

"Part of the problem is that there is too much looking after oneself and not enough looking after others. It's possible that modern society has encouraged a race for money and material values that 'Little Dorrit' is very much against."

Edzard did not want to film "Little Dorrit" unless she could do "the whole book." That is what she has done, although she has dispensed with Dickens' original villain, Blandois. The first film tells the story through the eyes of the hero, Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), a lonely middle-aged man who comes back to Victorian England after 20 years in China. The second film is basically a retelling of the same story, from Little Dorrit's point of view. Both parts must be seen--and in the right order, says their director somewhat severely.

Edzard and Goodwin certainly have the courage of their own convictions. When Thorn-EMI, the company that originally funded the project, was taken over during production by Cannon--who admitted it was not Cannon's kind of movie--they bought back the UK cinema rights with their own money. They wanted to do the same thing for America, so they could supervise its U.S. release, but Cannon refused. "Cannon was determined it knew what it was doing," says Goodwin.

They are already immersed in developing their next movie. Edzard refuses to disclose the subject, but it will be made at the studio in exactly the same way as "Little Dorrit." She could not, she says, work without her own team around her--and her husband believes that "artisan film making" is the best hope for the futureof the cash-starved British industry.

"I don't think the sources of finance are sufficiently beefy to support large-budget films, if they are going to be British," Goodwin says. "The future must be for much more artisan filmmaking. It's the only way bigger things can be done for less money.

"If it means you don't get the immediate interest of Universal or Paramount, then you have to find sources of finance that approve of what you are doing. It's actually absurd what's spent on films these days, anyway. It's just pampering, and I don't mean the stars. I mean everybody.

"Personally, I'd rather work like this. All studios started this way. Films were made in big family groups. Then suddenly people thought it was a business and it got out of hand," Goodwin says.

"I've just spent six months going by barge to Vienna, to film a TV series, and you see things differently. You see that people are not desperate for entertainment, they are enjoying their everyday lives. I'm beginning to think that, in the film industry, we are all chasing quicksilver."

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