Hollywood has been doing violence to the works of Charles Dickens for some years now. At this very instant, two of his best known works are being mangled on screen, in Scrooged and Oliver and Company. (I mean this not as a value judgement of those films, but in reference to their fidelity to either the letter or the spirit of their originals.) Even the best film versions of Dickens, even those from Britain, typically fail to give the full experience of a Dickens novel. Little Dorrit comes closer to that experience than any film ever has before. And, even more amazingly, it manages to also make its own artistic statement, in addition to, rather than instead of, what Dickens intended.
One obvious attribute that Little Dorrit shares with the novel is length. The novel was nearly a thousand pages. The film is around six hours long. It is shown in two parts, subtitled Nobody's Fault and Little Dorrit's Story. Though some reviewers have claimed otherwise, they are not independent. The first part doesn't conclude the story, and the second doesn't contain enough information to explain what is going on. Moreover, there is a definite order to the two parts. Seeing Nobody's Fault first will lead to a much clearer view of the film than seeing Little Dorrit's Story first.
Little Dorrit, like most of Dickens' novels, is a panoramic story set in London in the mid-18th century. Typical of Dickens, the central character is a child in trouble. Little Dorrit is a young woman born and raised in Marshalsea, a London debtors' prison. Her father has been imprisoned there for over twenty years, and has become known as "The Father of Marshalsea." They have no real hope that he will ever be released, and only the efforts of Little Dorrit, plus Mr. Dorrit's shameless habit of playing on the guilt of visitors, allow the family to live in some small comfort. But the picture changes when Arthur Clennam, a decent middle-aged man recently returned from China, takes notice of her. He devotes himself to helping the Dorrit family, and, perhaps, there will be some chance of obtaining the father's release.
As in all Dickens' story, this barebone outline just scratches the surface of the myriad subplots and complexities of the story. Underlying the plot is the theme of society's collective guilt for its treatment of its least fortunate. The title of the first half of the film is a recurring refrain, "It's too bad, but it's nobody's fault." Nothing is anybody's fault, nobody is to blame, and, by extension, nothing can be done. By focusing on this message, the film version of Little Dorrit proves just as relevant for today as the novel was for Dickens' time. The least fortunate are still miserable, and it's still "nobody's fault" - because, though rarely acknowledged, it's really everybody's fault.
Little Dorrit works, then, on the levels of a pure entertainment and as a social commentary. But, surprisingly, it also has an interesting third level. The two parts of the film cover substantially the same ground. Many scenes from the first half are partially duplicated in the second. But the first part is told from the point of view of Clennam, while the second is told from the point of view of Little Dorrit. The repeated scenes are different, not only in viewpoint, but in subtle details of conversation, settings, even costumes. By the middle of the second part, we realize that what we saw in the first part was highly subjective. It was how Clennam viewed the events of the story, and that viewpoint was not omniscient, even in the scenes that he himself participated in. Nor is Little Dorrit's view of the scenes necessarily correct, or even any more correct than Clennam's.
At first, this duplication smacks a little of a not very interesting trick. So, the viewpoints are different, so what? How does that fit in with the rest of the film's themes? But more consideration shows that the bifurcation does fit in perfectly. First, we see the story from the point of view of a privileged person, for whom the ills of society really are nobody's fault. He is a decent, good man, but he cannot see that the society which supports and affirms him, by its very nature stamps down and denies others. Then we see the story from the point of view of one who has directly suffered from the machineries of that society, someone who can clearly see that there is fault to be laid at the feet of those who do nothing to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate, that they are profiting at the expense of the poor. The perniciousness of assigning no blame becomes very clear. Writer-director Christine Edzard has brought to the film not just fidelity and love, but inspiration.
Adding to the effect are the performances. Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness, as Clennam and Mr. Dorrit, lead a cast of less familiar names, but great talents. Jacobi takes a passive role that could easily have been boring and makes every instant of it fascinating. He's done this before, and I can think of no surer mark of a great actor than to be able to hold the attention of an audience while playing a quiet role in the midst of many other colorful characters. Guinness' performance is also superb. Mr. Dorrit is in some ways pitiable, in others almost a monster. He is a man obsessed with appearances, even while in the depths of poverty. He doesn't mind his daughter slaving to permit him small luxuries, but he makes sure no one sees her doing it. Guinness uses every tool of the actor brilliantly to make us understand, sympathize with, and condemn his character.
A few names in the supporting cast are familiar. Robert Morley shows up briefly, almost irrelevantly. Cyril Cusack plays Guinness' brother quietly, but effectively. Joan Greenwood is the picture of motherhood as a flinty, barren field. The rest of the roles are filled by fine British actors with faces that are sometimes familiar, and are always brimming with Dickensian eccentricity. Especially fine are Roshan Seth as the brisk, somewhat mysterious Mr. Pancks, and Miriam Margolyes, as the love of Clennam's youth. Margolyes produces perhaps the finest Dickens comic caricature ever brought to the screen, and is utterly hilarious. Sarah Pickering deserves special mention. The role of Little Dorrit is even more passive than that of Clennam, yet Pickering uses every opportunity the script offers to show her quiet, self-effacing heroism.
Little Dorrit, all six hours of it, was shot in a studio. It shows, yet perhaps that is not inappropriate. In some sense, Dickens' writing portrayed the literary equivalent of a studio version of 19th century England. It was not precisely realistic, but offered a concentrated, artificial version of the real world that, paradoxically, allowed him to more closely approach the truth of the age than strictly accurate reportage ever could. Christine Edzard uses the studio to the same effect. Artifice is plain enough that we never truly believe that her cameras have traveled through time to the 19th century, but the artifice is so well and carefully crafted that we feel the essence of the time.
The sets and costumes are little short of brilliant. Almost everything used in the film was produced from scratch for the film. The care for detail is obvious, as is the research that must have gone into the art direction. And these details are not merely window dressing, but are used to deepen and broaden the canvas of the film. The costumes give a further dimension to each character, and the sets establish not just place, but mood. Little Dorrit offers an unusually fine example of the use of visual details to support a film.
Little Dorrit is not without its weaknesses. The primary one is that the second half of the film is too repetitious. Edzard had to tred a fine line between repeating too much of the material from the first half and not showing enough of it to make the differences in the points of view clear. She seems to have erred on the side of revisiting too much material. This problem is compounded by the fact that few interesting new characters are introduced in the second half of the film, and also by seeing too little of the most entertaining characters from the first half. Another flaw that could have been easily avoided is confusion in the final resolution of a mystery set up practically from the beginning of the film. Given that the film ran six hours, surely another minute could have been devoted to clearing up the rather tangled strands. From a technical point of view, sometimes the limited budget shows through a bit too clearly, particularly in some of the mattes and models.
But these weaknesses are minor. On the whole, Edzard has made a superb film. Little Dorrit is most heartening because it shows not only talent, but true direction. Most promising new directors make more interesting versions of what everyone else is making. Edzard has boldly chosen a path of her own, and leads the rest of the participants of the film in the direction she has discovered. Little Dorrit may not be the easiest film to see, but it is extremely entertaining, artistically satisfying, and socially conscious. No other film I've seen this year has tried so much. The real miracle of Little Dorrit is how much of the ambition has been realized.
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