Little Dorrit

Masterpiece Classic miniseries, March 29–April 26.

With Charles Dickens, you expect an innocent saint of a hero, broadly drawn yet charmingly idiosyncratic characters, sensational setbacks and reversals, and, of course, some populist agitation, and Little Dorrit does not disappoint on those fronts: check, check, check, and check. What surprised me, though, is how timely that populist agitation is. We’re inured to the deprivations of “A Christmas Carol,” and Bleak House focuses on arcane nineteenth-century British legalties, but the targets of Little Dorrit come straight from today’s newspapers: ruinous Ponzi schemes, predatory lenders and landlords, a financial system that rewards those who shuffle money about rather than those who actually produce goods. As melodramatic as Little Dorrit is (very), the rage at its core about capitalism gone awry is still all too relevant, and it still burns.

Claire Foy plays the titular little Amy Dorrit, a young woman born and raised at Marshalsea, a notorious debtor’s prison where her widowed father (Tom Cortenay) has been confined for decades, longer than any other inmate. Amy and her siblings are free to come and go, and Amy, striving to support her family, begins work as a seamstress for the forbidding Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt). Mrs. Clennam’s uncharacteristic kindness toward Amy startles the old woman’s estranged son Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen), and he becomes convinced that the Clennam family business is responsible in some way for the Dorrits’ misfortune. (His father’s vague deathbed exhortation to “put it right” weighs heavily upon Arthur.) Arthur befriends the Dorrits and secretly hires Mr. Pancks (Eddie Marsan) to investigate the Dorrits’ financial history, and Pancks makes a fortuitous discovery: far from being destitute, the Dorrits are heirs to a wealthy estate. But that is hardly the end of the story. Wealth brings with it unforeseen complications, and the Dorrit family’s relationship with Arthur becomes strained, much to the sorrow of Amy, who has fallen deeply in love with him.

That paragraph provides only the bare-bones premise of Dickens’s labyrinthine story, but the two poles around which everything turns are, clearly, Foy’s Amy and Macfadyen’s Arthur. Both actors effortless convey the goodness of their characters. Foy brings as much pluck as she can to the often passive heroine, and Macfadyen, with his sad puppy-dog eyes, is far better suited to play a Dickens hero than, say, Jane Austen’s prickly Mr. Darcy. (Hee! I tease because I adore making fun of 2005’s ludicrously overwrought Pride and Prejudice. I laugh at the very thought of Macfadyen’s Darcy striding through the morning mist like he thinks he’s Heathcliff or someone. God. For a movie I technically dislike, the Macfadyen-starring Pride and Prejudice has entertained me way too many times.)

But I digress. Suffice it to say, the real color of Little Dorrit is, inevitably, in the supporting characters, of which there are a couple dozen, each with his own part to play in the convoluted saga. Aside from the hilarious Pancks, who takes several surprising turns, my favorite is probably Fanny (Emma Pierson), Amy’s shrewd, materialistic older sister, a disreputable dancer whose elaborate, sculptural hairdos and stylized makeup inexplicably show the influence of geishas, despite the fact that Japanese culture wouldn’t be popularized in Britain for a few decades. (OK, so that hasn’t anything to do with anything—just a weird design quirk of the miniseries—but it cracked me up.) There’s also poor, sweet John Chivery (Russell Tovey), the jailer’s son whose love for Amy will always go unrequited; Frederick (James Fleet, whom I will always love for his self-effacing turn as Tom, who doesn’t believe in thunderbolts, in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Amy’s loyal uncle, the one person in her family who truly understands her; Mrs. Merdle (Amanda Redman), the terrifying, steely society woman, also given to bizarre hair styles, with whom Fanny goes toe to toe; and Miss Wade (Maxine Peake), the intriguing, icily vindictive lone traveler about whom we never learn enough to satisfy my curiosity.

The two most garish of the secondary characters—and, frankly, the most discomfiting—are Rigaud (Andy Serkis) and Cavaletto (Jason Thorpe), outrageous stereotypes of, respectively, an oily, predatory Frenchman and a bottomlessly genial but functionally retarded Italian. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and the directors seem to have decided that if Dickens’s sketches of non-Englishmen can’t be adapted to modern sensibilities (and one could certainly argue that they can’t be), those sketches should simply be embraced to a laughable degree. I guess it works—sort of. Serkis, best known for portraying Gollum underneath the CGI in the Lord of the Rings movies, adopts a crazily over-the-top French accent and an overblown, rapacious leer to play the murderous Rigaud, creating a character that’s both frightening and funny in an awkward sort of way. The choice is clearly deliberate—his mannerisms are so exaggerated that it couldn’t not be—and it’s a memorable performance, granted, but … I don’t know. When Cavaletto, a grown man, tearfully and sincerely cries that Rigaud has threatened to “eat-a heem,” and Rigaud is so flippantly evil that I wonder whether he would, just to creep everyone out, I’m not sure which performance flusters me more.

The Mickey Rooney–in–Breakfast at Tiffany’s style of performance might not have annoyed me so much were not the rest of Little Dorrit relatively nuanced. Again and again, the shifts in Davies’s screenplay kept me from writing off the characters. As repellant as Mr. Dorrit can be, for example, the miniseries doesn’t let us forget how traumatic his imprisonment has been and how much he loves his children, even if he is not always able to understand them or, in Amy’s case, to appreciate her sacrifices on his behalf. Similarly, Mr. Pancks, a rent-collector, initially seems to be a cruel, one-dimensional character, the sort you’re supposed to revel in hating, until we learn more about him, too, and our perception shifts. Thematically, the Circumlocution Office (a fictional creation) is a forebear to Kafka’s nightmarish bureaucracies, and the neat structural parallels and echos of Little Dorrit demonstrate a craftsmanship of narrative (rather than just character) that Dickens couldn’t always achieve in his other serialized works (though perhaps the credit there best goes to Davies).

I could have done without the Masterpiece Classic introductions, however. Nothing against Laura Linney, who delivers the little educational speeches, but having a work framed for me before I have a chance to experience it for myself has always been a pet peeve of mine. If they were more innocuous, they might have been less annoying, but the intros indulge in biography-as-interpretation, a tack I particularly dislike. I don’t even believe that an author’s explicit interpretation of his or her work should be preeminent (though it is valuable, of course), so using little biographical nuggets as if they provide the True Meaning is even less legitimate.

Linney goes on and on, for example, about how Dickens tired of his fat, middle-aged wife, eventually leaving her for a slim actress in her late teens, and explicitly relates that to how Arthur declines to pursue his childhood sweetheart Flora (Ruth Jones), now a chubby widow, and falls in love with a slender young woman instead. She harps on the issue of weight, but to my mind, at least, that’s the least interesting and least meaningful way to think about Arthur and Flora. Arthur isn’t shocked by how much Flora has changed; he’s shocked by how much she hasn’t. He has grown up, and she’s still dressing, acting, and giggling like a Victorian-era Shirley Temple, complete with a head of tight little pin-curls. Her weight isn’t irrelevent, but neither is it the real point, even if Arthur Clennam and Charles Dickens’s situations were analagous, which they’re clearly not.

Worse, though, the introductions divert attention from what makes Little Dorrit unusually compelling: its timeliness. Looking back in time at Dickens’s own experiences in debtor’s prison distracts from the novel’s continued relevance in our time. The dramatization of the inhumane deficiencies of laissez-faire economics is enormously compelling, and if you insist on reading the text as one man’s biography, you’re missing the bigger picture. Of course, I don’t want or need Linney to tell me that either before I experience the adaptation for myself. I guess I don’t understand why the introductions are necessary at all. If a story is well told, it speaks for itself, and how could anyone presume to speak for a storyteller such as Dickens?