“Little Dorrit,” the English film we’ve been hearing about for more than a year, has at last arrived. And the two-part, 6-hour rendering of Charles Dickens’ most popular success and now least-known novel is pure astonishment, start to finish.
The joys of Dickens are no surprise to Americans any more, not after 8 1/2 hours of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring phenomenon “Nicholas Nickleby.” We’ve had some pretty decent Dickens on film before, too, like David Lean’s “Great Expectations,” which introduced Alec Guinness to most of us 42 years ago.
But we have never had Dickens with the sweep and perfection of “Little Dorrit,” nor one so shatteringly relevant. (It opens today with staggered showings at two theaters in the Westside Pavilion. Parts I and II require separate admissions.)
Among its many virtues are such a nonchalant array of the cream of British actors as to verge on the indecent: Guinness, Derek Jacobi, the late Joan Greenwood, Cyril Cusack, Roshan Seth and Eleanor Bron. In the dozens of smaller roles, you discover actors such as Robert Morley and Sophie Ward. And if you didn’t know the artistry of Miriam Margolyes or Max Wall, “Little Dorrit” will fix all that.
What may fascinate American audiences is how timely great Dickens can be--or can be in the hands of a great director. And for many, the discovery of Christine Edzard, the film’s writer-director, will be as potent a find as the novel itself.
To fit “Little Dorrit’s” enormous canvas, nothing less than a social portrait of the age, onto the screen, Edzard has hit upon an ingenious plan of adaptation. Though it is vast, with 242 speaking parts, and extremely political--George Bernard Shaw called it “more seditious than ‘Das Kapital’ "--"Little Dorrit” is also an unfolding story of love at its most steadfast and enduring. And it is through the intimate stories of its two lovers, Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, that we see this fevered world of financial speculation and social pretention, the London of nearly 150 years ago.
The first part, called “Nobody’s Fault,” which has more than a touch of mystery about it, is seen through the eyes of Arthur Clennam (Jacobi), the gentle, ruminative hero of the novel. Part II, which both continues the saga and presents it from a completely different psychological and even physical point of view, is “Little Dorrit’s Story,” seen by that tiny angel of the Marshalsea debtors prison, Amy Dorrit (20-year-old newcomer Sarah Pickering.)
In quick sketch, Arthur Clennam, after years in China serving in his father’s business, returns to England to find that his pious mother (Joan Greenwood), now paralyzed, has become a creature of unrelenting religious severity. She is waited upon by her servant Flintwinch (Max Wall), an old twisted corkscrew of a man who, strangely, seems to have some secret hold over her.
Thankfully leaving the gloom of his mother’s mansion, as well as her financial hold on him, Arthur surveys London society in all its snobbery and spiraling debt. It has victims already, packed away in prisons like the Marshalsea, where William Dorrit (Guinness) has been for 23 years, with his son and two daughters.
The youngest, Amy Dorrit, now 22 but barely bigger than a 12-year-old, has even been born “inside.” The prisoners’ children may leave during the day, must work, in fact, to provide their parents’ food and care. The lives of Amy and Arthur cross when she comes to work for his mother as a seamstress. However, the infinitely self-deluding William Dorrit cannot leave the prison. Somehow, he has turned his almost quarter-century incarceration into a lofty vocation; he now shamelessly cadges handouts from visitors for “the Father of the Marshalsea.”
Beyond the Marshalsea’s spiked walls, London is a teeming maelstrom: circles within circles. Edzard fixes them in our mind, face after memorable face: The working poor, struggling to pay their rent in Bleeding Heart Yard. The drawling rich, led by Mr. Merdle, “the spirit of the age,” and its most intrepid speculator. We see very little of Mr. Merdle and a great deal of Mrs. Merdle (Eleanor Bron), whose honeyed platitudes are never-ending. Her scalding portrait is second in satiric wickedness only to Flora Finching (Miriam Margolyes). Based on Dickens’ first love, she is now an overstuffed divan of a widow, prattling with the numbing pace of a tobacco auctioneer.
With the sudden shifts of fortune that are a Dickens trademark, the Dorrits’ lives change. Through the detective work of the mysterious rent-collector Mr. Pancks (Roshan Seth) they become not only not poor, but impossibly rich and they wade forthrightly into the social currents of the day.
Only Amy, pining for Clennam and for a forthright measure of simplicity, and her splendid uncle (Cyril Cusack) are wretched in their luxury. It is William Dorrit’s finest, most plummily pretentious hour until he finds that, like some creeping mildew, the great moist shadow of the Marshalsea will not leave him.
It becomes clear why modern critics have called this Dickens’ masterpiece, and why Dickens scholar John Carey considers it “the one work to put him on a level with the great French and Russian novelists.” Edzard’s attack--energy with intelligence, compassion with impeccable taste--is no less brilliant, and her cast responds with performances of the most immense subtlety and power. Her gift is to bring the evils of the period alive to us, until, through the horrid buzz of the Marshalsea flies, the unending dripping of water, we feel the clammy constriction of the place in our very bones.
As Bruno de Keyzer’s camera travels with such empathy across the pinched faces of the poor or glides unblinkingly across acres of marble and gilt at a glittering engagement dinner, Edzard levels these social inequities straight into our faces. We find that Dickens has set up a mirror which reflects our own century as perfectly as his own, and Margaret Thatcher’s England better than most.
Wrapping up the age like a soiled bandage is the soothing, constantly heard phrase: “It’s nobody’s fault.” Nobody’s fault w hen greed wipes out the careful savings of the middle-class along with the fortunes of the rich. Nobody’s fault when the devices of the Industrial Revolution crush a working-man’s arm. Nobody’s fault that rents spiral impossibly or that children sleep on the city streets.
Dickens loathed the hypocrisy of that phrase, but when, full of the fury of social reform, he came to lay a finger on the guilty party in “Little Dorrit,” he couldn’t: Everything was so ingeniously interconnected, the social fabric of the age so tightly woven and the rot so deep.
Even there in the Marshalsea, instead of struggling against its evils, William Dorrit is busy admiring its good air “that blows over the Surrey hills.” The “nobody’s fault” syndrome may not seem out of place to Americans today, either.
But “Little Dorrit” is not all blame and despair. Keeping pace with the Verdi that underscores it and exemplified by the modest, steadfast Amy Dorrit herself, its spirit is actually triumphant. As much as anything else, that is “Little Dorrit’s” most stunning achievement.