The financier Merdle is a secular God in Charles Dickens’ excoriating Little Dorrit, a richly detailed novel that marked the author’s second step, after Hard Times, toward more baleful fiction. It was fully accepted and expected that Merdle would buy up the whole of England to extraordinarily beneficial effect so highly he was seen as having the most enlightened social and political aims. Perversely, Christine Edzard in her film of Little Dorrit—all in all, the best Dickens film I’ve seen*—banishes Merdle to brief background appearances until his suicide, while underscoring the patriarchic element he represents by the ironical indirection of having had his wife constantly speaking for and representing him. In effect, Merdle ultimately appears only to vanish, leaving us to contemplate his invisible influence in most everything we have seen, and exposing the riotous lack of appreciation of the deleterious effects of capitalism throughout various strata of Victorian society. Marshalsea, a debtors prison, keeps collecting people who had been marked by great expectations but who end up, for all their airs and ambition, as the disposable property of creditors. Amy Dorrit—“Little Dorrit”—was born in Marshalsea, where her father is incarcerated.
Edzard has divided her thoroughly engrossing, deeply moving, brilliantly edited six-hour film into two parts: “Nobody’s Fault,” where even responsibility for widespread poverty is taken up by no one, and where someone or other declares “Nobody’s fault!” so often it comes as a shock when someone says “My fault!” over the accident of brushing against someone else in the street. Following Dickens, Edzard also undertakes a satire of bureaucratic runaround, propelled by Arthur Clennam’s desire to secure a patent for a safely operating machine for his business, that suggests Kafka as well as Carlyle. The second part, beginning with her birth, follows Amy’s pilgrim’s progress, humanizing Amy by disclosing her noble interiority, whereas in the first part we view her in patches from the outside. Before Edzard concludes her calmly feminist work we see a number of scenes we have already seen in the first part, but with the events shifted to Amy’s perspective, a partial, miniature echo of Robert Browning’s method in The Ring and the Book. Don’t worry; it all ends happily with a wedding. But Shakespeareans know that such anticipated bliss is problematic. Amy marries a man who, throughout the first part of the film, somehow failed to notice how much in love she was with him. Edzard’s first-half reliance on Clennam’s perspective has extended this failure to ourselves. “Nobody’s fault!”
Except for Derek Jacobi, who is typically doughy as Clennam, the actors provide a phenomenal range of quirky, colorful humanity. For me, the three best performances are given by Cyril Cusack as Amy’s uncle, who is as devoted to his brother as Amy is to her father, Roshan Seth as Pancks, and Joan Greenwood as elderly Mrs. Clennam, who has a family secret tucked away. Sarah Pickering is strikingly convincing as “Little Dorrit.”
To be sure, the novel’s complicated plot has been streamlined; but what a rich, dark and glowing tapestry the film is all the same.
* Yes, better than George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1934); yes, better than David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946).
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