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Little Dorrit (1987)


Main image of Little Dorrit (1987)
35mm, colour
1: 'Nobody's Fault', 176 & 187 min; 2. 'Little Dorrit's Story', 181 min
DirectorChristine Edzard
Production CompanySands Films;
Produced byJohn Brabourne
 Richard Goodwin
ScreenplayChristine Edzard
Original novelCharles Dickens
CinematographyBruno De Keyser

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Arthur Clennam); Sarah Pickering (Little Dorrit); Alec Guinness (William Dorrit); Joan Greenwood (Mrs Clenam); Miriam Margolyes (Flora Finching); Cyril Cusack (Frederick Dorrit); Roshan Seth (Mr Pancks); Eleanor Bron (Mrs Merdle); Michael Elphick (Mr Merdle); Max Wall (Flintwinch); Patricia Hayes (Affery)

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Returning to London after years abroad, Arthur Clennam takes and interested in his mother's seamstress, Little Dorrit, and the unfortunate history of her father, now in a debtors' prison.

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This was the first screen adaptation for over 50 years of one of Dickens' longest and most complex novels. Adapter and director Christine Edzard presented the story in two separate but overlapping films from the viewpoints of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit. Elaborate sets were constructed in Rotherhithe, south London, to represent the Marshalsea Prison, the interiors of prosperous or neglected middle-class houses, and London's teeming streets and docks. Hundreds of costumes were painstakingly sewn by hand.

Three hundred of Britain's finest character actors - and Alan Bennett - were drafted in to populate the world of Dickens' imagining, and audiences flocked to see a story that for many was largely unknown outside the classroom or library. But many critics were unimpressed, lamenting the static camerawork, finding Edzard's adaptation clumsy and repetitious and disagreeing with her omissions, especially the blackmailer Rigaud and his accomplice Miss Wade, and the Meagles' servant Tattycoram.

Viewed over 20 years later, the film seems more like a television serialisation, with its leisurely six hours running time. Filmed mainly in close and medium shot, its scenes tend to focus intently on one or two characters, the dark interiors and moody lighting evoking a sense of oppression. The theatricality and stylisation are quite deliberate, signalled by Edzard's choice of Verdi for the music soundtrack, full of tragic grandeur and operatic fatalism, but used sparingly, along with birdsong, ticking clocks, and faint sounds from outside.

In the eerily quiet interior scenes a tiny movement or gesture, like dropping a shawl, can have a seismic effect. Occasionally, the long conversation pieces are broken, quite brilliantly, by sudden bursts of activity in the wider world - the print shops around St. Paul's, the bridge where Amy meets Arthur, the public areas of the Marshalsea - where a noisy, purposeful crowd will appear, bustling before the fixed camera. It's a simple, effective way of conjuring up the life of the Victorian city.

The acting is impressive, although Derek Jacobi's lonely, sensitive Arthur is at least a decade too old. Sarah Pickering, who never acted professionally again, brings alive the self-effacing yet strong Amy Dorrit. Alec Guinness is superb, especially in his mental collapse in the great set-piece of the Merdles' dinner party, and the death scene that follows. Other standout performances include those of Miriam Margolyes, Eleanor Bron and Amelda Brown. Overall, even after Andrew Davies' 2008 BBC adaptation, it remains an impressive achievement.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
Little Dorrit (2008)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Elphick, Michael (1946-2002)
Hayes, Patricia (1909-1998)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
Margolyes, Miriam (1941-)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)
Smith, Liz (1921-)
Thewlis, David (1963-)
Dickens on Film