Little Dorrit (1987)

Based on Charles Dickens reportedly satirical novel about the poor and rich in Victorian society and one which is sympathetic towards the poor, which for me, was an agreeable sympathy, whatever the politics involved in Dicken’s treatise. It got me thinking. The mere presence of a ‘debtor’s prison’, for people who cannot afford to pay off their debts, is awfully archaic and punitive, but one wonders if there was some method to tell the story in 1987, bringing it up to date with seeing the poor in the modern world and a modern thematic treatment of the poor.

William Dorrit is the gentlemanly head of the debtor’s prison, but he is poor himself, looking after his own. He sweeps those up in his conversation and is the object of adoration of is daughter Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering).

One has a certain amount of sympathy for William Dorrit, as he is someone the story sides with, especially evident in the final scenes which are breathtakingly good. Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi) aims to help the Dorrit’s out of prison, by doing some investigating, with the help of a lawyer.

Part one—the three hour It’s Nobody’s Fault—is seen through the eyes of Clennam, Part two is much the same storyline as part one but told through the ‘eyes’ of Little Dorrit. Scene after scene is framed to see the second half through the perspective of Little Dorrit (who is called Amy under different circumstances in a significant shift of setting). One finds respect for her, her kindness, genuineness, good manners and even temperament standing out, which made quite an impression.

The actual logistics of undertaking a film told from two character’s perspectives would be painstaking to produce, but effective in the end. And I loved the cast and characters. With a sprawling cast, Little Dorrit is filled with good performances and interesting characters.

As Clennam, Derek Jacobi exudes a youthful air. Clennam’s fineness and reserve is the surface but he is secretly in love. He is also impeccably generous which reveals nobility. On the other hand, as Cleenam’s mother, Joan Greenwood is frightfully straightforward.

With her bubbly personality and effervescence in a reserved society, Miriam Margolyes as Flora Finching stands out in the sense that she seems out of place, but in a good way.

Roshan Seth’s exuberance is catching, his cockney accent a change of pace from his refinement in Gandhi and a villain’s off-colour charm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The dialogue and interactions are sophisticated, more and less, and require one’s full concentration.

An impressive production in the scale of storytelling despite the setting limitations. There is authentic production design, mostly indoors, which may be too wooden for some tastes, and there are timely costumes (the 1800’s), with the occasional flare for cinematic storytelling. A grand, underrated achievement from writer and director Christine Edzard.

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