Monday, 5 March 2012

Little Dorrit

I'm woefully behind time due to lectures and assignments, but I did manage to watch the 1987 version of Little Dorrit ,directed by Christine Edzard. The company is Sands Films and at risk of closure due to greatly inflated rent, which is downheartening, as the film was really good. It's divided into 2 parts, from the viewpoints of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit respectively. You can get it here:

Compared to the 2008 version, I found the 1987 one more true to the novel. The streets open with crowds of people walking and vendors selling their goods - just how you'd imagine a crowded city. New films I find tend to make the scenery too perfect it doesn't look realistic. The costumes are not faithful, however - the book states it is in the 1820's, whereas the film protrays the setting as the date of publication, the 1850's. But this is a small snag, as the tone of Dickens' novel is undoubtedly Victorian rather than Regency. The whole theme of development, the rising middle-classes, the workhouses, the falling gentry - these are definitely Victorian features.

Little Dorrit and her father
Mrs Clennam
Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam

As for the actors: Now this was a hard competition, as the 2008 version featured good actors, unlike some of Andrew Davies' dramatisations. Derek Jacobi starred as the careworn, sensitive Arthur Clennam, who returns to England after years of work in China. His father has died, and told him to tell his mother "Do not forget." Jacobi is rather old for the role, being 50 rather than 40 as in the novel, but he was Clennam. I somehow see Clennam as a less exalted version of Hamlet, don't ask me why, but anyway Jacobi once played Hamlet in a film. Clennam goes to see his cold, religious mother, and I think they cleverly portrayed his fear of her by getting a child actor to sit in front of her to show how much he feels like a child.  True, he stutters, but since he's so scared of her it only makes sense. Matthew Macfadyen, though talented, didn't show the same fear as Derek Jacobi. In the book Clennam wasn't as strong-headed a businessman as Mrs Clennam, certainly less domineering. You sympathise for him at once. I know Matthew Macfadyen is dreamy and good-looking but I couldn't imagine him as a man somewhat destroyed, too old for the girl he loves. You may not like a wimp but it's only being real.

Patricia Hayes as Mrs Clennam is good, just as Judy Parfitt was in the 2008 version. I can't compare them really. There's something about the old school of actors that really stirs you. So is Max Wall as the eerie Jeremiah Flintwinch, and Alun Armstrong in 2008.

Now to the controversial bit - Little Dorrit, played by Sarah Pickering. In the cast interviews she said she was surprised that she hadn't to do much for her role - because the character is quiet. Andrew Davies resolved this by making Claire Foy speak out her mind more in 2008, but though the person was real, the character according to Dickens was not. You can't imagine Claire Foy (though she acted it out well) as a resilient antiheroine and a pathetic figure. She is too strikingly pretty. Besides, the real Little Dorrit doesn't speak out her mind. People accuse Dickens of idealising his women but in Little Dorrit he had achieved something great and deeper. Re-reading it, she is real to the life. Unlike his other heroines, she is plain and childlike, though strong within. She is quiet because it is her nature (I like it that Dickens made her a needlewoman not a dancer like Fanny, to show she isn't a limelight girl) and because she has pride in her independence. She refuses to let Clennam give her father sympathy-money, and for a girl who hasn't been in society she certainly has more true pride than her father, who is a vain man who is arrogant and pitiful.  Sarah Pickering can depict a character with reserve, even her eyes are done well. Viewers sadly don't like her but her character wasn't meant to charm you at once. In the book she doesn't fit well in society when her father inherits a fortune: she is more at home with the down-to-earth middle and working-classes. When she goes to Italy, she likes the paintings from her own impressions, not from the guidebook recommended by her chaperone, Mrs General. This of course angers her father and sisters, who are ashamed of her, who has supported them in their unhappy days.  I could see the quiet Sarah Pickering as one who can't adapt herself to the lively ways of society.  She is what you would call a middle-class heroine, and not at all a Mary Sue.   Unfortunately Sarah Pickering hasn't played any more film roles since then. Ironically I suspect the film's uncharming character may have destroyed her career: she played it too well.

As Frederick Dorrit, Alec Guinness reigns supreme. I admit the actor in 2008 was proud and prejudiced and impassioned and convincing, but Alec Guinness has the subtlety of a Victorian gentleman. Despite being a jerk, Mr Dorrit was brought up as a well-to-do gentleman and in those days they did learn manners and gallantry. He didn't burst out as much as the 2008 actor and yet conveyed the patheticness of the weak Mr Dorrit. You might mistake Mr Dorrit 2008 as any ordinary old man but Guinness convinces you that he is a Victorian gentleman. I understand viewers don't get subtlety a lot of the time, which is really sad, because that adds to the depth and the reality of those dear old repressed days.

The setting of the Marshalsea is also true to Hablot K Browne's illustrations in the novel. In the 2008 version you see a great big stone room, which looks too luxurious for a prison. In the 1987 version the room is small, with withered wallpaper and sparse furniture. It looks like a dilapidated home.

Edzard left out the Miss Wade-Tattycoram and the Rigaud plot unlike the 2008 version which was faithful to the plotlines.  I was a bit sad, as those bits were exciting, but critics have said that Dickens was being over-sensational and leaving out those parts don't matter very much. Indeed they don't. If you are in for the plot you won't be pleased. But if you are in for the sheer depth of character and life in the Victorian era, the rest is more than sufficient.


  1. I agree with you. Actually, Derek Jacobi was 47 at the time and has always looked young for his age. Actually, the book says Arthur Clennam looks young for his age which leads to a further dilemma. I could not watch the new version at all because what I saw of it online was so distasteful and so different from this version. Also, if we might add, Matthew Macfadyen was actually too young to be Mr. Clennam. No mind, Derek Jacobi had him outclassed in the character to begin with.

  2. I loved Sara Pickering as Little Dorrit, she gave the character depth and sensibility. The fact that she was not beautiful but very feminine, delicate and strong at the same time, with great dignity, as Dickens meant her to be I guess... And she was so very slight to signal vulnerability in a girl that skip meals to keep them to his father! I just saw the 2008 version but I prefer the 1988 film.

    1. I so agree. Little Dorritt was LITTLE. in the 2008 version, she was as taller if not taller than many of the other actors. And the huge room hardly portrayed the reality of debtors prison. I am sorry about Sara Pickering, as she portrayed her part with such skill and sensitivity.

  3. Patricia Hayes did not portray Mrs. Clennam in the 1988 film. She portrayed Affery. Mrs. Clennam was portrayed by the incomparable Joan Greenwood.

  4. The great Tom Courtenay played William Dorrit in the 2008 version, so to be able to get two fine actors for the respective parts of Little Dorrit's father was a massive coup.