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Little Dorrit (2008)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Little Dorrit (2008)
BBC / WGBH (Boston) for BBC1, tx.
1 x 60; 13 x 30 minutes, colour
DirectorDearbhla Walsh
ProducerLisa Osborne
ScreenplayAndrew Davies
Original NovelCharles Dickens
PhotographyLukas Strebel

Cast: Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen); Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy); Mrs Clennam (Judy Parfitt); Mr Dorrit (Tom Courtenay); Flintwinch (Alun Armstrong); Rigaud (Andy Serkis); Miss Wade (Maxine Peake); Mr Merdle (Anton Lesser); Mr Meagles (Bill Paterson); Panks (Eddie Marsan)

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Arthur Clennam returns to London from overseas to find evidence of a dark family secret, which somehow involves his mother's new seamstress, Little Amy Dorrit.

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"I have been blowing off a little indignant steam," wrote Dickens about Little Dorrit. The plot concerns the revelation of a mysterious legacy that links the Clennam family, whose son Arthur has returned from abroad to rectify a family wrong, with the Dorrits, whose father is in Marshalsea prison for debt and whose daughter Amy is a seamstress at the Clennam household. However, Dickens's indignation mainly rouses itself in his creation of a materialistic metropolis, crawling with slum landlords, idle bureaucrats and shady speculators, all in thrall to the tycoon Merdle, whose catastrophic financial downfall prophetically resembles recent global events.

Justifiably nominated for numerous awards for its costume design (Barbara Kidd) and for a production design (by James Marifield) that had to simulate settings of Marseille and Venice as well as London, this BBC/NOVA WGBH Boston co-production is among the most lavish of all Dickens' adaptations for television. It is also one of the most brilliant. Andrew Davies' script, which followed his much-lauded Bleak House (2005), does a masterly job in pulling the sprawling narrative together, while recognising that it is the audacious concept and the rich characterisation that count most.

The overriding theme is imprisonment, sometimes literal (the Marshalsea), sometimes symbolic (the Circumlocution Office, which is binding the country in red tape), and sometimes both physical and spiritual (as in the case of the paralysed Mrs Clennam, played with fearsome righteousness by Judy Parfitt). Even the seemingly superfluous character of the murderer Rigaud (a flamboyantly malevolent Andy Serkis) has his place in the symbolic design, being a reminder of what prisons are for and a distorted, demonic version of Dorrit in his insistence that he too is a gentleman. Above all, the past is a prison from which no one can escape.

With over two hundred speaking roles impeccably spoken, it seems unfair to single out individual performances. Still, it is doubtful whether Tom Courtenay has done anything finer than his William Dorrit, a proud but pathetic patriarch who, even when showered with riches and welcomed into high society, carries the taint of the Marshalsea with him and whose mind eventually gives way under the pressure. And goodness of heart has rarely been projected more beautifully than by Claire Foy's Little Amy Dorrit. Here is a production that does full justice to what one might call Dickens' artistry: indeed, genius would not be too strong a word for it.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1: Looking for employment (3:57)
Complete first episode (57:34)
Little Dorrit 3: The father of the Marshalsea (5:17)
Little Dorrit (1987)
Courtenay, Tom (1937-)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Dickens on Television