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Hard times

Life and debt in Dickens's Little Dorrit
By JUSTINE ELIAS  |  March 24, 2009

BANKABLE In this slow-burning romance amid financial ruins, WGBH may have found its mini-series for the age.

Little Dorrit | WGBH | March 29–April 26: Sundays at 9 pm
When last year the BBC interrupted its broadcast of Little Dorrit — which hinges on the downfall of a Bernie Madoff–like figure — for a tawdry true-crime documentary, thousands of viewers complained: don't leave us hanging! Would it be penthouse or pavement for the true-blue lovers? Would Victorian London's most-leveraged banker, "The Man of the Age," drag everyone into the Marshalsea debtors' prison — or worse? Even more intriguing: would wily Miss Wade — a lesbian on a mission of vengeance — turn out to be good, bad, or merely sexy?

Although the BBC's Little Dorrit isn't, alas, a bodice ripper à la Tipping the Velvet (the gold standard in revisionist Victoriana), those avid British viewers can't be blamed for craving their Dickens fix. In this novel about the anxiety of sudden wealth and sudden debt, WGBH's MasterpieceClassic may have found its mini-series of the age, a satisfying, slow-burning romance amid the financial ruins. This is Dickens done right, with style, a sinister sense of humor, and a minimum of sentimentality.

Andrew Davies, the mini-series adapter, is notorious for discovering the sexy bits that classic novelists forgot to write. But even Davies can't claim credit for unlacing Miss Wade's sexuality; she's right there in the novel, revealed in a white-hot first-person chapter that's launched a thousand queer-studies monographs. Dickens permitted Miss Wade (Maxine Peake) only a "secret smile" in the direction of lonely servant girl Tattycoram (Freema Agyeman); the TV series implies something more.

Little Dorrit, despite its racy underpinnings of lust and money, remains one of Dickens's least-adapted novels. A slow, stately 1988 two-parter (360 minutes) written and directed by Christine Edzard earned Academy Award nominations for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness). But there hasn't been much else. Perhaps it's because Dorrit, unlike Oliver Twist, lacks the most lowbrow Dickensian theme: a child in mortal peril. (Stay tuned in May for a new, shipshape version of The Old Curiosity Shop, with the ever-popular death of Little Nell.)

Death isn't in the cards for Little Dorrit: petite Amy, the seamstress heroine, may be impoverished and too damn nice, but as portrayed by newcomer Claire Foy, she's got a spine. When a Grand Guignol villain — the moustache-twirling French jailbird Rigaud (Andy Serkis, rolling his r's), importunes her in a dark alley, Amy seems annoyed rather than frightened. More unsettling to her maiden heart is the long-eyelashed hero, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen, Darcy in the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice), whom she loves in silence. Haunted by his wealthy father's dying words ("Put it right"), Arthur investigates a long-buried legal connection to the Dorrits, a decent family who've lost their fortune. Lording it over all of them are the ultra-rich Merdles (Anton Lesser and Amanda Redman), who're riding high on the stock market.

Halfway through, there's a stunning reversal of fortune: the Dorrits get rich, get out of jail, and embark on grand tour of Europe — where, in true Dickens style, they keep running into people they know. Amy frets over her beloved father and suffers the tutelage of a society dame, Mrs. General (Pam Ferris), who counsels, " 'Papa' is a preferable form of address. 'Father' is rather vulgar. Besides, the word 'Papa' give a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very good words for the lips."

Sounds like: prison. Worrying words, particularly for Dickens, whose father did time in the Marshalsea. As a child, the author had to go live there, and he never got over it. This Little Dorrit conveys both the thrill of riches and the hangover that results when risk goes wrong. And this London looks bracingly familiar.

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  Topics: Television , Entertainment, Media, Television,  More more >
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