Monday, March 30, 2009
What? The Dickens?
I hadn't planned to watch the adaptation of Little Dorrit on PBS last night. I had kind of given up on "Masterpiece Classics" after the dud string of Jane Austen dramatizations last year. Moreover, the novel is not one of my favorites -- it's too much like a reworking of things he did better in Bleak House -- and I was bored by the two-part film version that came out in 1988. (Though that one did have one of Alec Guinness' last film performances.) But I stayed with it past the opening and found myself hooked. Partly by Andrew Davies' smart adaptation, but almost as much by the actors.
You notice I didn't say "the acting," though that was uniformly excellent. But the thing I love about these crowded costume dramas is the "where have I seen him/her before?" game. As a "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" fan, I liked seeing Freema Agyeman as Tattycoram, but it took me a while to recognize that Eve Myles (Maggy) was Gwen Cooper from "Torchwood." And if I hadn't known in advance that Matthew Macfadyen was the glum Mr. Darcy to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet in the recent Pride and Prejudice movie, I doubt I would have recognized him as the considerably more animated Arthur Clennam.
As for Tom Courtenay as William Dorrit -- well, it sure has been a long time since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Doctor Zhivago, hasn't it? I'm liking him more than even Guinness in the film version, maybe because he hasn't been so well-exposed to us as Guinness was. The scene in which he wheedles money out of Arthur, part of his self-established entitlement as "Father of the Marshalsea" was funny and creepy and embarrassing all at once. And Claire Foy, the Amy Dorrit, was suitably abashed by it.
Other familiar faces include Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Clennam. Parfitt's stock in trade is a kind of imperious hauteur, but she nicely shades that into her character's guilt-hauntedness. And Andy Serkis as Rigaud is simply terrifying -- as you might expect from the genius who created Gollum. But there's one familiar face that I just can't place: Maxine Peake, who plays the mysterious Miss Wade. I've looked at Peake's IMDb credits and I still can't figure out why she's so familiar to me. I don't think I've seen anything else she's listed as having been in.
The subplot of Miss Wade's hold over Tattycoram was (probably rightly) omitted from the 1988 movie, as I remember. Last night, Peake gave it distinctly sapphic overtones. And that's OK -- I like some of the small contemporizing touches, the peeling away of the Victorian veneer, that Davies has introduced into the script, such as Arthur's being propositioned by a streetwalker or Rigaud's bedding and murder of the chambermaid -- in the bed he's sharing with the terrified Cavalletto. I did think, however, that the character who, noting that Arthur had been to China, wondered if Chinese women were different "down there" went a little too far.
Macfadyen, Foy and Serkis talk about their characters: