In watching part one of Little Dorrit last night on Masterpiece Classic, to say I was riveted would be an understatement. Part one was fantastic, and if the rest of Little Dorrit lives up to the promise of last night’s two hours, this is hands down the best Masterpiece presentation in years – probably since Bleak House. Here’s the spoiler-free summary of episode one from the PBS website:
Amy "Little" Dorrit lives in the Marshalsea Prison for Debt caring for her father William Dorrit. To aid her family, Amy works for stern shut-in Mrs. Clennam. Son Arthur Clennam returns from China after his father's death, haunted by his father's final, mysterious words. Is there a long-buried family secret and does it somehow involve Amy and her family?
Settling back into English life, Arthur gets reacquainted with former sweetheart Flora Finching, although true affections are saved for Pet Meagles. Meanwhile, in Paris, sinister murderer Rigaud considers coming to England.
Having now befriended Amy and her family, Arthur makes a financial offering to help one member of the Dorrits. Amy's appreciation and affection for Arthur grows as John Chivery, a turnkey at the Marshalsea who has a longtime love for Amy, watches heartbroken.
To probe more deeply into the Dorrit mystery, Arthur enlists rent collector Mr. Pancks for help, leaving Arthur free to visit the Meagleses. While there, Arthur becomes troubled by Tattycoram (who lives with the Meagleses), and her mysterious connection to Miss Wade.
Now, any and all spoiler free bets are off as I’m going to rip into the episode. (Though since I’ve never read the book – actually never even heard of it until this miniseries was announced – I don’t think you have too much to worry about if you’re concerned with spoilers!)
I can already tell that it’s going to take a couple of viewings of Little Dorrit to get a really good grasp of the multiple plotlines and the huge cast of characters thrown our way (in true Dickensian fashion). The scope and feel of this program immediately recalls the epic Bleak House, presented by Masterpiece in 2006 (hard to believe it’s already been three years!). Both productions were adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies, who has proven time and again eminently suited to bringing classics to the screen. The broader the scope of the source material, the better I think one can appreciate Davies’s talent for honing it into compelling, relatable television.
Claire Foy plays the title character Amy (“Little Dorrit”), and according to the IMDB, this is her first major role and only her third acting credit. Thus far I’m incredibly impressed with her screen presence and believe she’s going to do an excellent job anchoring this epic miniseries. Her relatively slight frame is in keeping with her character’s name, but she has these wonderfully large, expressive eyes that lend her face a luminous quality. She’s not flashy, but she has an arresting presence – it’s clear that Amy is a character that’s borne much, but the burdens of life haven’t robbed her personality of kindness and strength.
And now we come to the main reason I was excited about this program – the presence of Matthew Macfadyen as our noble hero Arthur Clennam. I fell in love with Matthew when he brought his own unique merits to the character of Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice. Arthur definitely comes across as a little less polished, less self-assured than Darcy – that is in no small part no doubt due to being treated like crap by his crazy mother (more on her later). So far, Arthur has proven to be rock-solid in the honor and loyalty departments. He’s also comes across as slightly befuddled, a bit unsure of himself, and that apparently stems from the lack of any sort of positive affirmation in his life. However, the fact that he’s such a good guy, and something of a catch to boot, and he doesn’t even realize it, makes him incredibly endearing. (Though I have a feeling that I’m going to want to smack him upside the head and yell “Wake up!!” before the show concludes – he’s a trifle dense.)
Arthur figures prominently in several of my favorite scenes from last night’s episode (surprise, surprise, I know). When he visits the Circumlocution Office in a futile attempt to find out why William Dorrit was imprisoned, the staging and setting of the scene is the perfect blend of social commentary and wry satire. The winding stairs and never-ending piles of paperwork provide a wonderful visual illustration of the futileness of Arthur’s quest and the general mess of the legal system as a whole. The whole scene was a great reminder of how some things haven’t changed all that much between now and Dickens’s time. I also loved the scene where he’s left his mother and is getting settled into his own place (finally!), and Amy and Maggy drop by because Amy knows he is responsible for rescuing her brother from a foolish racing debt. Matthew Macfadyen is just too stinking adorable for words in this scene as Arthur, obviously desperate for friends, practices playing host.
Now I want to go back and briefly discuss some more of Amy’s family. Tom Courteney plays the Dorrit family patriarch William, who’s been in Marshalsea debtor’s prison for so many years he’s become known as the “father of Marshalsea.” Talk about a high-maintenance Daddy – one gets the impression that William has pretty well disconnected from reality, and actually enjoys being renowned as Marshalsea’s most famous resident.
James Fleet plays William’s well-intentioned but rather meek brother, Frederick, who’s not a Marshalsea resident and tries to help his brother’s family when and where he can. It was so much fun seeing Fleet on-screen again – his most famous role in my experience is as Hugo in the absolutely hilarious show The Vicar of Dibley. According to the credits, Frederick appears in all of Little Dorrit’s episodes, so I’m curious to see how his character may develop.
Amy has two siblings – Fanny, played by Emma Pierson, and Edward or “Tip,” played by Arthur Darvill. The main thing I can say about them is that if you compare them to Amy, she doesn’t just appear as good and sweet and kind, she comes off as an absolute saint with an unbelievably deep reservoir of patience for tolerating their self-centeredness.Maggy, played by Eve Myles, is probably the closest thing Amy has to a true sister even though they aren’t actually related. She’s the mentally challenged granddaughter of Amy’s former nurse. Amy is devoted to Maggy and quite protective of her – and considering her own challenges of supporting a family that expects more than they’d ever dream of giving, Amy’s devotion to her friend further underscores her good nature.
The Chiverys of Marshalsea Prison
The Dorrits are watched over by the turnkey of Marshalsea Prison, Mr. Chivery (Ron Cook) and his son John (Russell Tovey), the assistant turnkey who is hopelessly in love with Amy. Their kind treatment of the Dorrits allows the family, particularly father William, to retain some shreds of dignity even while in prison. I absolutely LOVE John’s character. The entire time I was watching last night’s installment, I kept thinking “This is great! John’s like Guppy (from Bleak House), only better, because he’s adorable, sweet, and NOT INSANE.” I haven’t seen much of Tovey’s work, except for random episodes of Poirot or Doctor Who (he’s also in an upcoming Marple episode – look for that this summer!). But since he’s making such a good impression in this series, I have to predict good things for Tovey’s acting future. After all, Burn Gorman’s career really took off following his unforgettable turn as Guppy in Bleak House – then he appeared in Penelope, a Marple episode, Wuthering Heights, and a recurring role on Torchwood. Whenever I see Gorman on-screen I get this uncontrollable urge to jump up and down, point at the screen, and yell “Guppy! OMG it’s GUPPY!!” If John’s character continues to make a good impression, I can only sound (marginally) saner in the future yelling “John! OMG it’s JOHN!!” during forthcoming Tovey acting gigs (which I very much appreciate).
The House of Clennam
Mrs. Clennam, played by Judy Parfitt, is quite a character, to say the least. I think the first thing I can remember seeing her in was as Queen Marie in Ever After (note to self: haven’t seen that movie in ages, need to re-watch asap!). Mrs. Clennam has always ruled her family with an iron hand – apparently Arthur and his father went to the Far East for like fifteen years just to get away from her (which I completely understand given her behavior last night, just sayin’…). In an unusual flash of generous spirit, Mrs. Clennam hires Amy, providing her with some much-needed income. However, she refuses to divulge the reason to Arthur, or to shed light on the mystery he brings to her door in the form of a cryptic message found in his father’s pocketwatch. As an invalid, she’s lived in a gradually decaying old house for a dozen or so years – she reminds me just a bit of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations in that respect. She repeatedly rebuffs all of Arthur’s attempts to honor her with some token of filial respect, like a simple embrace – her treatment of him is quite chilling. Their whole relationship is a fascinating, dysfunctional trainwreck.
The other two residents of Clennam House are Jeremiah Flintwinch (Alun Armstrong) and his wife Affery (Sue Johnston). Armstrong has appeared in several Masterpiece adaptations, playing Daniel Peggotty in David Copperfield and Bucket in Bleak House. Jeremiah’s an interesting, deliciously sinister character. It’s unclear at this point whether or not his loyalty resides with anyone but himself. I feel just awful for his poor wife Affery (and not just because she has a goofy name) – thus far it appears he married her as part of some “grand plan” hatched with Mrs. Clennam, though why they had to join forces in marriage is anybody’s guess. Affery appears to have a kind heart but a very weak-willed nature, the latter tendency exacerbated by years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Mrs. Clennam and Flintwinch.
The Meagles Family
The role of the Meagles family is sure to grow and expand as Little Dorrit progresses. Arthur first meets the Meagles on his return voyage to London, and Mr. and Mrs. Meagles take an instant liking to him as a potential suitor for their daughter, Pet (seriously – Pet?!). Mr. Meagles is played by the wonderful Bill Paterson, who has appeared in Wives and Daughters, Doctor Zhivago, ShakespeaRe-Told, Foyle’s War, Miss Potter, and Amazing Grace. Mrs. Meagles is played by Janine Duvitski, who I first encountered when I started watching Waiting for God and One Foot in the Grave (both are hilarious British comedies from the 1990’s).
At this point, I don’t have much to say about the daughter, Pet (played by Georgia King), for a couple of reasons – she’s coming off as spoiled, vapid, empty-headed, and most unforgivable of all, Arthur apparently has a thing for her. Guys can be so annoying. This is the smack-Arthur-upside-the-head situation that I alluded to earlier. Why Pet, Arthur? Isn’t her name enough of a turn-off? You generally appear to be sensible, level-headed, and honorable…so wake up!! (I feel better having gotten that out of my system.) The final resident of the Meagles household is Tattycoram, an orphan they have taken in who has issues with the fact that she’s treated more like a servant rather than an adopted daughter. Tattycoram is played by Freema Agyeman, who I think, quite simply, rocks. She shot to fame as the smart and competent Martha, the Doctor’s companion in season three of Doctor Who. Tatty appears to be headed for trouble – she’s so dissatisfied with her lot in life that she’s ripe for corruption by the mysteriously sinister Miss Wade (played by Maxine Peake). I’m very curious to see where Dickens takes Tatty’s character as the story unfolds.
Being a Dickens novel, there’s a whole host of other characters surrounding the main players, so I have to mention a few of the highlights that stood out to me last night.
Mr. Pancks (Eddie Marsan) is a hard-nosed debt collector whose character gets really interesting when Arthur hires him to try and discover why the Dorrits were imprisoned. Pancks reminds me just a bit of Alun Armstrong’s Bucket from Bleak House, so I’m very curious to see where the story takes his character.
Flora Finching (Ruth Jones) jilted Arthur once upon a time, and during his hiatus in the Far East has been married and widowed. Her altered appearance in the intervening years is initially played for a chuckle or two (filmed really well I might add), but she’s not a simple comic character. Flora makes no secret of the fact that she still harbors a passion for Arthur, and the fact that she is so transparent with her feelings lends the character some real emotional depth. I have to mention her crazy dead husband’s aunt that she “inherited,” played by the fabulous Annette Crosbie (The Slipper and the Rose, One Foot in the Grave). Her brief appearance as Mr. F.’s aunt was absolutely hilarious (the whole dining scene was a comic gem!), and I’m happy to see that she reappears later on in the series.
And finally, I have to mention the sinister Rigaud (also known as Blandois and Lagnier), played by none other than Andy Serkis! I had no idea that Serkis was in this miniseries, and I didn’t realize who was playing him until I started to really examine the cast list today. This is just further proof (as if we needed it) of Andy Serkis’s uncanny ability to completely disappear in a role – I had no idea who he was when watching last night! Honestly I was a bit confused as to how Rigaud fits into the puzzle that is Little Dorrit, so I’m very curious to see how Rigaud is brought into the center of the action, and what this cold-hearted killer’s appearance means for the good guys.
Everything about Little Dorrit screams of top-notch production values. The costumes are fantastic, and every single set is dense with detail and rich with atmosphere. Every frame, every scene of the story gives you a lot to “chew” on, and far too much to digest in simply one viewing. I make no secret of being a huge film score fan, so I have to give a shout-out to John Lunn for his gorgeous work here. And thank you, Andrew Davies – so far this adaptation is proving to be another sterling entry in your resume of outstanding work.
Is Little Dorrit the equal of Bleak House? That remains to be seen. However, for what it’s worth in my opinion this promises to be the best costume drama to come from the BBC since Bleak House and maybe Cranford (almost forgot the latter!).
You can read more about Little Dorrit at the Masterpiece Classic website.
For a limited time, you can watch full episodes of Little Dorrit online.
Pre-order the Little Dorrit DVD (releases April 28th).
You can see a few more pictures of the cast of characters at my Xanga site - I'm finding that Xanga is a lot more "photo-friendly" than Blogger for ease when formatting picture-heavy posts.