The BBC video catalog offers a treasure trove of great adaptations of English fiction (and quite a few that have not aged well in either style or production quality), but one that was marvelous when released and still looks and sounds tremendous is 1994’s Martin Chuzzlewit. The six-hour-plus presentation features the late Paul Scofield in two roles; Tom Wilkinson as Pecksniff, one of the most fascinatingly repulsive characters in Charles Dickens’s bottomless trunk of morally shrunken men; Pete Postlethwaite (whose death at age 64 last January was one of the screen’s great losses in 2011) as the corrupt and charismatic Montague Tigg; and an array of other British actors who, with near-casual proficiency, make practically every minute of this made-for-TV series a delight to watch.
Scofield, who plays both Martin Chuzzlewit and his dying brother Anthony, offers the story’s moral center, built around the wages of greed and the standard tragicomic trope of an extended family’s blood-struggle over an expected legacy. Scofield is magnificent as always (I had the privilege of seeing him perform live in The Tempest in 1975 in London with a Notre Dame law professor and friend named Frank Booker), but here he has rivals in the entire cast and in the plaintive and memorable score by Geoffrey Burgon. The series can be had for under $10 on Amazon.com. Finally, the film’s brief portrayal of America circa 1842 is a vivid reminder, Dickens’ biases aside, that things could be much, much worse in our beloved land this Christmas.
— Charles A. Donovan is president of the new Charlotte Lozier Institute.