And a Few New Charles Dickens Analyses!
By Kristin Battestella
Why? Because Chuck’s Bicentennial knows no bounds!
Great Expectations (2011) – This most recent 3 part television production is lead by an unrecognizably wonderful, almost ghostly Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), a totally glorious David Suchet (Poirot), the perfectly pompous Mark Addy (Game of Thrones), and a quite menacing Ray Winstone (Beowulf). Young stars Oscar Kennedy and Izzy Meikle-Small (Never Let Me Go) are also endearing in the first hour and up to challenge of the mature cast in bringing these quintessential Dickensian characters to life. The ironies of high and low in comparison with wealth and circumstances are in absolute form here- far, far better in style, transition to the screen, and audience joy than contemporary wastes like the 1998 update featuring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. The bleak but vivid locations indoors and out are fittingly depressing- the murky bogs, the hauntingly cobwebbed Havisham House, candlelit ambiance, and early 19th wispy décor and costumes. While it is nice to see him as the lovely good guy Herbert Pocket for a change, I’m also getting a bit tired of seeing Dickens’ descendant Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) in everything, I must say. Likewise, he’s not my favorite Pip and Douglas Booth (Worried About the Boy) is perhaps a little too pretty, wooden, and dry, but he nevertheless carries the sympathy and arrogance needed for Pip’s twists and turns. Vanessa Kelly (Labyrinth) is also somewhat snotty, but that is Estella’s very allure. People are indeed still playing revenge with each other’s hearts and fortunes, after all.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Dickens’ final incomplete tale seems to have garnered new attention with recent stage and literary off shoots- even if it is perhaps impossible to conclude this murder and romance plot befittingly of Our Man Charlie. However, this fine 2012 television attempt has the proper mood lighting and cinematography, a shadowy Victorian underbelly style, and a few twisted villainous personas for good measure. The cast- including properly pissy Tazmin Merchant (The Tudors), stuffy and fun Ian McNiece (Rome, Doctor Who), and a creepy freaky Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) - does solid as always in these imported PBS/Masterpiece period projects. There are some intriguingly modern suggestions from Dickens, with opium-addicted choirmaster Jasper and his lecherous looks upon young ladies easily garnering a shudder or two. Even with such thematic darkness, screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes adds darker complexities and contemporary suspense designs, and the approach simply isn’t as taut or interwoven as work straight from The Man Himself. The conclusion here takes what seems to be a fairly easy way out- the 21st century twist rather than Victorian happenstance, justice, and irony. Fortunately, the very unfinished circumstances that can hinder any Drood adaptation also make this one a worthy witness for any Dickensian fan or scholarly seminar.
The Old Curiosity Shop (2007) – The picture here is very dark and perhaps tough to see and subtitles will be a must, but the decrepit streets and candle light look Dickensian perfection. Derek Jacobi (Little Dorrit) shines again as the good-natured but always financially ill grandfather against the wicked and nasty Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Quilp, and Zoe Wanamaker (Harry Potter, David Copperfield) adds much needed levity for this very bleak implication of death being the only way to escape debt’s extremes. Sophie Vavasseur (Northanger Abbey) as Nell is immediately likeable thanks to her would be beauty amid the low and salacious- but the endearing built-in Dickens innocence and similarities to other tales of wealthy woe can seem tiring or laid on too thick. After all, the PBS producers here also brought us the aforementioned Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Bleak House. Perhaps the brooding is slow and obvious or expected if you binge so much Dickens material at once, but by gosh, living in a society where one’s aptitude is determined by his or her- or worse another’s- financial power really sucks. Not only can we completely relate, but it is also seriously upsetting to see the way people can still be bought and sold with the same ease and cruelty today. The short 90 minutes here feels a little too quick compared to other miniseries heavies, but this swift debt debate fits well for a secondary education Dickens introduction. Not that I haven’t given you enough Dickensian media from which to choose!