And the Dickens’ Bicentennial Keeps Rolling Along…
By Kristin Battestella
Party like its 2/7/1812!
Bleak House – This 2005 BBC mini series adaptation boasts a dynamite looking Gillian Anderson (Scully), Denis Lawson (Wedge), Anna Maxwell Martin (Poppy Shakespeare), Carey Mulligan (Shame), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries), Hugo Speer (The Full Monty), and many, many more. The high-end decor, low looks, and to the hilt HD style are great- complete with a brewing, spooky atmosphere and sharp editing. Instead of spending visual time on lavish scenery and scopes, numerous up close shots and tight photography keep the focus on Dickens’ players as they chase fortunes and vices while the legalese profits from it all. The decidedly not quick, full 8-hour serial format works superbly for the hefty source material-which seems slightly less well known, but is just as complex. This is both dark cinematically, with a lack of bright and colorful Victorian cheer, and saucier thematically, with slightly obvious but nonetheless juicy and illicit soap-esque twists. If only we had ongoing miniseries like this again on American TV instead of reality junk or unintentionally short and mislaid fluff with no attention to detail. It’s bemusing to see such a large cast interconnected and inescapably tied to the system- entire lives and families rise and fall on the espionage and law here. But of course, we should not be surprised how those vile at the top use legality for their gains in the same way the unscrupulous at the bottom lean upon the establishment. The unforgiving societal consequences come to the forefront with great mystery and crime plotting just to keep things interesting, too. For as the characters themselves say: lawyers…villains…same thing!
Little Dorrit (1988) – Another film with a huge cast of Dickensian unfortunates, this 6-hour two part version is lead by Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius), Joan Greenwood (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and Alec Guinness again. Much as I love Jacobi, he is damn tough to hear, with a dry delivery that makes the opening hour seem overly stuffy and highbrow. Greenwood is also cold and unlikeable, but perfectly freaky and right on the mark. The interplay between those in debtors’ prison content to be big fish in their low pond, the impoverished who are actually better off, and the rich maintaining the high life appearances is wonderfully ironic. Unfortunately, with such a windblown running time padded needlessly with annoying, loud crowds and passersby distracting from players as they go here, there, and everywhere for seemingly meaningless conversation-whew! - it does take time to get to the titular mystery. Fortunately, young Sarah Pickering as Amy Dorrit is lovely- if perhaps too soft spoken. Indeed, Little Dorrit could be graceful and upscale, and this potential heredity versus environment debate from Dickens amid the blasé attitudes on impoverishment is intriguing. Oh, it’s no one’s fault really, and no one is actually to blame, but it is what it is, and the bureaucratic red tape and technicalities remain. It’s amazing also how this apathy is unchanged, even typical, nay expected today. Of course, it’s all dang confusing without subtitles and hints of comedy or sardonic uplift are missing for large segments. Despite the source novel’s twofold framework, it’s tough to sit down with two 3-hour long episodes. Finite viewers might really enjoy this presentation, but it is not for the Dickensian lightweight. It’s not the small scale or simplistic design- the Victorian lows and pitiful mood is here perfectly- but this 19th century stifling, mid life crisis feeling makes this watch feel older or too mature. How old is everyone supposed to be anyway? Even with the more innocent and humble second half, the slow and dull pace can be somewhat disinteresting. I greatly appreciate the attempt made by writer and director Christine Edzard (As You Like It), but seriously, some of the fat should have been trimmed here.
A Tale of Two Cities – Dirk Bogarde (Victim, Death in Venice) stars in this fairly accurate but slightly unloved 1958 British adaptation along with the young and pretty but very ruthless Christopher Lee (really?) and Donald Pleasence (Halloween). Though the black and white photography and budget décor make director Ralph Thomas’ (helmer of the Doctor series frequented by Bogarde) take seem more dated or a little older than it is, there is also a feeling of old-fashioned ambiance created by the monochrome tricorn hats and shadowy aristocratic houses. It seems we’re witnessing this little Vive la France! via 1858 as perhaps Dickens himself might have done. Though built within an unrequited love- not usually the first genre element we think of with Dickens- there’s still plenty of espionage, intrigue, adventure, and revolution for the expected Dickensian twists and turns. For being the epitome of Victorian literature and 19th century England, Dickens’ parallels of the poor injustices amid the Revolution and the aristocratic turnabouts of the guillotine come across exceptionally. Unfortunately, some of the place and time transitions and foreign situations might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the novel, so this edition should be left for older scholars or wise students. However, unlike some of Dickens’ other interwoven and complex intricacies, this is actually quite a straightforward tale. Besides, this is a British production; the viewer is expected to be not just familiar, but dang intimate with dear Sydney! “It is a far, far better thing that I do….” Sniff.