‘Hundreds of thousands of men and women still happily asleep, with no idea that they will wake to their own ruin. If only they knew what we know now, what a fearful cry against one miserable soul would go up to heaven!”
It could have been said of Bernie Madoff, but instead it’s said of a Madoff-like character in Little Dorrit, the BBC miniseries set to air on PBS starting this Sunday. Adapted by Andrew Davies from the novel by Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit is attracting an unusual amount of attention because of its tale of crooked financial dealings and resulting economic devastation, which could have been ripped from today’s headlines.
But Little Dorrit is much more than just a simple story of greed and ruin. The financial villains get their share of condemnation — Dickens was a social reformer to his very bones — but the real point of the story is to examine the people affected by widespread catastrophe, and see whether they have the strength of character to rise above their circumstances and avoid being corrupted.
In this kind of strength and goodness, the story indicates, lies humanity’s hope — not in any grand utopian scheme for remaking government or the economy, which even the perpetual reformer, as he grew older, had ruefully come to believe would keep functioning much as they always had.
For lovers of literature, watching an Andrew Davies adaptation can be something of a gamble. When he’s at his best, we get works like the immortal Pride and Prejudice miniseries, or the highly acclaimed Bleak House. When he lets his own viewpoint and preoccupations creep in, we end up with gratuitous bathtub scenes (Northanger Abbey) or promises to cut God out of Evelyn Waugh’s work (before he left off working on the recent Brideshead Revisited).
Dickens fans, and viewers in general, can thank heaven that this is one of the times when — with a few brief deviations — Davies stays out of his own way. He uses his considerable talents to serve rather than distort the work, allowing one of Dickens’s best stories to shine as it deserves. The directors and production designer show similar restraint, using stunning effects and camera angles but without piling them on until they’re distracting, as Bleak House sometimes did.
As usual with Dickens’s works, Little Dorrit is swimming with colorful characters, but at the heart of it are two families, the Dorrits and the Clennams. William Dorrit has lived for over 20 years in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison — the very prison where Dickens’s own father was incarcerated for a time. His youngest daughter, Amy (Claire Foy), nicknamed “Little Dorrit,” helps support the family by working as a seamstress. She is hired on generous terms by the grim Mrs. Clennam, to the astonishment of Mrs. Clennam’s son, Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen), who has never known his mother to do a generous thing in her life.
Arthur has troubles of his own: His father has just died, leaving him cryptic instructions to “put it right.” Not knowing what “it” is, but haunted by the words, Arthur comes up with a theory that his own family has wronged the Dorrits in some way and that his mother is now trying to make up for it. He sets to work to ferret out the truth, but the more he digs, the more impenetrable the mystery grows.
Yet in the process, Arthur and his friend Pancks (Eddie Marsan) unearth another secret even more valuable to the Dorrits, one that will lift them out of poverty into undreamed-of wealth. The downside is that the Dorrits’ new position in society threatens Arthur and Amy’s friendship — which on her side has grown into something more than friendship. At the same time, Arthur, steady and sensible though he usually is, gets caught up in the speculation fever raging through London, and makes a disastrous decision.
Once again the BBC has recruited an impressive cast. Standouts among the supporting actors include Marsan as Pancks, a bulldoggish rent collector with an unexpected heart of gold; Tom Courtenay as William Dorrit; and Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) as the mysterious Frenchman Rigaud, who tries to blackmail Mrs. Clennam. The role of Rigaud allows an actor to ham it up to his heart’s content, and Serkis clearly has a blast doing just that.
William Dorrit, on the other hand, is something of a one-note character — heartbreakingly so. While he was in prison, sponging off everyone who walked through his door, Amy once pleaded with Arthur, “Don’t judge him as you would judge other people, people outside the gates. He’s been there so long.” She didn’t understand that it wasn’t prison, but his own character, that had made her father what he was — a truth revealed when he remains just as selfish, grasping, and paranoid after his release. Playing Mr. Dorrit with a querulous monotone that, appropriately, grates on the nerves, Tom Courtenay makes him both a small, petty man and a tragic figure, as trapped in his riches as he was in his poverty.
In the end, despite the plethora of characters and subplots, the production has to be carried by Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, who in their fundamental decency and honor stand out in sharp relief against their self-seeking families. Perhaps the greatest strength of Dickens’s novel, faithfully reflected here in the film, is his ability to show “the banality of evil,” as we call it today, so adeptly that the goodness of his main characters becomes a positive, attractive quality, instead of the passive quality that too many modern readers would take it for.
Matthew Macfadyen and Claire Foy do an admirable job of bringing out this quality — the former perhaps a little better than the latter. Macfadyen is allowed to play Arthur as Dickens envisioned him, with a nobility and tenderness that contrast jarringly with his mother’s coldness. Macfadyen’s expressive face allows him to say a great deal without actually saying anything, as in a memorable little early scene when the thought of seeing his mother again, after years overseas, makes Arthur crumble inside.
Foy’s Amy, sweet and sympathetic for the most part, is occasionally pushed to the edge of harshness by the writer and directors — unnecessarily, as the novel’s “Little Dorrit” is no syrupy “Little Nell” whose unbelievable perfections require bringing down to earth. Created during the author’s more mature years, Amy, underneath all her gentleness, displays a strength and take-charge attitude that needed no 21st-century renovations. Foy does her best work in the scenes where Amy is allowed to display this steeliness (for instance, refusing to abandon Arthur when he’s in trouble) without going overboard with it.
It is these two main characters — with a little help from their friends — who, overcoming great suffering, ultimately save the story from gloom and cynicism. It is their story, even more than the film’s story of wide-scale financial speculation and ruin, from which modern-day viewers can learn something: that goodness can and must be cultivated even in the direst of circumstances, for it is the one thing without which we cannot survive.