14 February 2020


Performances Make the Flawed Dickensian
by Kristin Battestella

Shades of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit pepper winks to David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby in the BBC's 2015 mash up Dickensian. This ten hours plus series from creator Tony Jordan (EastEnders) features murder mysteries from A Christmas Carol and prequel fallout for Bleak House and Great Expectations alongside twists from Olivier Twist and a potluck of Charles Dickens' characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, and more buying and selling at The Old Curiosity Shop. It's surprising no one attempted this novelty before, however the Marley meets Fagin gimmick wears thin thanks to uneven pacing, poorly focused storytelling, and a meandering intermix of too many characters. Fortunately, strong performances and superb source material keep the melodrama worthwhile.

Scowling townsfolk, death beds, and shocking will readings open Dickensian as wealthy made paupers, meager wages, unpaid debts, arguing businessmen, and creepy child dealings make for a melancholy Christmas Eve. It's moody and surreal to see famous characters populate the same cobblestone streets and ominous back alleys, congregating as we recognize the eponymous names and places before Christmas morning brings blows to the head, coroners, and inspectors on the murder case. Dickensian has a lot to do and moves fast – maybe too fast when viewers aren't sure yet who has an important part to play and which characters are merely window dressing, spying on the comings and goings over subdued holiday celebrations. Everyone's a suspect montages and redundant whodunit zooms for each person can also be too humorous a la the 'burbs despite humble gift givings, police questioning, and motives run amok. Mysterious journals, clues, and stolen wallets but other valuables left on the dead are plotted and edited as a modern thriller rather than a traditional period piece, yet the audience most familiar with these characters and the literary references is more likely the older Victorian fan than fast moving younger viewers. At times the great attention to Dickens details is too much – it would take more than one viewing of Dickensian to catch them all – yet we're also supposed to enjoy characters in separate storylines bumping into each other by mere happenstance or pick pocket in a scene transition disguised as a connection. Gossip about the murder spreads fictitious details of strewn innards as messages are burned and families argue. Pauper's graves and poor proposals begat modest weddings, but a codicil in the will leads to ruinous investor schemes. Smitten older aristocrats come courting with awkward tea visits as baubles are bought and pawned and desperate loans mount. Orchestrated jealousies and faked dog rescues escalate amid no alibis, arrests, and ruined nuptials. Debt collections are suspiciously erased whether they may have been collected or not, and despite Dickensian's back and forth nature, the best moments are when the action stays still and the players have time to really act. It's not quite clear which plot is the main focus here – Great Expectations meets Bleak House or A Christmas Carol meets Oliver Twist – and unrelated sidelines further upset the uneven balance as more new characters with familiar names, arranged suitors, and departed true loves come and go. Previous assault charges, witnesses, and drinking contests lead to rooftop dares and ingratiated villains, and Dickensian is again stronger when there are no cutaways from the murder questioning and action on the trail. Pleas to forgive arrears fall upon reluctant lawyers and merciless lenders as goods are seized and women high or low remain beholden to the nearest man – father, brother, lover, husband, or pimp. Constables gain sympathy and valuable testimony by feeding street urchins mutton pie, but a reward for the killer only makes for costly kisses, beatings, and debtor's prison.

Despite such potential, halfway through Dickensian, the episodes begin to feel the same. Threats are a long time coming, and it's sad to see the ladies love the wrong man even if the bitterness isn't surprising because we know how their novels end. Strong arming creditors, plotting couples looking for their come up, and soldiers who can't get a promotion go round and round amid for love or money break ups and off the book warehouses. Poor villagers are ironically happier in many ways compared to the losing wealthy and shady folk putting themselves out to gain or maintain. Surprise relatives, detectives tête-à-têtes, and unusual evidence pits suspects against each other before fainting spells, jails, and clever escape plans. After a sagging middle and humorous side stories that stall more important events, the dalliances, lies, and sabotage come together in the penultimate episodes as constables resort to brutal methods in gaining confessions. Something finally feels like it's happening on Dickensian thanks to bloody pregnancies and sisterly arguments where the uninterrupted drama is allowed to be the sole focus. Critical letters are burned, doctors don't arrive in time, and the Bleak House prequel angst again makes the case that Dickensian should have narrowed its concentration. These characters can coexist, sure, but don't force everything to happen at the same time so they undercut each other. Time is running out to find the killer, and revisiting the murder alley, its killer blows, and the personal motives are just as much about the deduction on the case as reminding the audience that we're supposed to be solving a crime. Apparently its been weeks onscreen – if not more if we think too much about the weather changes and early pregnancies – and in plain sight evidence should have been realized a long time ago. Was the malice planned or was it just an ordinary man in terrible circumstances? Flashbacks of the crime are well done with a surprising murder weapon, tearful revelations, and excellent performances as the ensemble carries the new twists on the familiar tales. Unfortunately, once the murder is resolved, the supersized finale returns to the same old back and forth. Forgotten characters are suddenly at the forefront wasting time while weak siblings quickly mature. Lawyers and strongmen come together as secrets are finally let out, but if it were all so simple, why did it take so long? The disastrous weddings and sour culminations leading to Great Expectations are superb enough thanks to more fine performances, yet Dickensian doesn't even need this entry if it's going to be cluttered with falling flat obtuse. In the end, the series is so busy setting up its gimmick with one and all at the pub for a sing a long that Dickensian forgets to embrace the dynamite characters Dickens left to explore.

The family's East India Trading Company deals have gone belly up, but Sophie Rundle's (Peaky Blinders) Honoria Barbary doesn't know about the misfortune – unlike Alexandra Moen (Doctor Who) as her serious, spinster sister Frances. Honoria works in a dress shop and tarries with her poor soldier boyfriend, but her glowing, youthful countenance turns pale and sad as she is forced to choose between her family and happiness. Frances is almost gleeful in giving Honoria the bad news, turning cruel in setting up her sister in a loveless marriage with an older aristocrat rather than build her own life. Honoria takes on their circumstances and potential scandals, bearing the guilt, punishment, and consequences we later know in Bleak House. Stephen Rea's (The Company of Wolves) Inspector Bucket, however, is straight forward and methodical, putting people in their place with facts. His new detective unit must investigate, gather evidence, and find the perpetrator to prove its merits, and Bucket stays determined despite a bad back and preferring to be home with his wife. He takes no pleasure in punishing the decent for committing a necessary evil and takes an honest man at his word even if he doesn't believe the killer when he hears the surprising confession. Bucket's infuriated more with child trafficking not being against the law, and he struggles when justice isn't satisfied. Only Omid Djalili (His Dark Materials) as Mr. Venus speaks frankly with Bucket, for he is able to see the criminal scenarios objectively when Bucket becomes too close to the case. Tuppence Middleton's (Clean Skin) Amelia Havisham is likewise reluctant to take advice upon inheriting most of father's estate. She's shrewd in business, aware of costs and new safety designs, and doesn't want a man to solve her problems. Unfortunately, Amelia is so smart yet so foolish, wanting to be loved despite all the red fags. Her melancholy end toward Great Expectations is excellent – no thanks to Tom Weston-Jones' (Copper) Meriweather Compeyson. The con artist is supposed to reunited Amelia's money with his fellow plotter Joseph Quinn (Les Miserables) as her brother Arthur, but Compeyson bends all the shady angles for himself. His slick takes over the increasingly drunk and desperate Arthur like an abuser in a relationship, and Arthur soon regrets their association. John Heffernan's (Dracula) lawyer Jaggers is as close as Dickensian comes to having one person involved and aware of every situation thanks to will stipulations and financial matters. He treads carefully, warning clients not to trust so easily, yet nobody listens to him, and the character remains terribly underutilized.

Peter Firth's (MI-5) nasty Jacob Marley personally knocks on reluctant doors for his payments and gets his kicks with Fagin's clientele. His infamy precedes him as he threatens one and all, and it's said one would be very disappointed in trying to find anyone to shed a tear for him. Likewise Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) as his partner Ebenezer Scrooge is only concerned with people if his money is in their pockets, calling in his loans regardless of illness or holidays. He humbugs at Marley's dalliances when they interfere with business and wants the whole firm to himself. People can't pay him back at their convenience, he has terms and their collateral, and it's their lack of foresight if they speculate and lose money. Robert Wilfort's (Gavin & Stacey) Bob Cratchit dares to question why his thirteen shilling pay is being docked by Marley, struggling over a one pound loan before taking a Christmas Eve stroll when the shops are closed to steal leftovers in the trash. Family is sacred to him and Jennifer Hennessy (Death Comes to Pemberley) as Emily Cratchit. Their children – including engaged seamstress Martha, young apprentice Peter, and sickly Tiny Tim who's somehow the same age as in A Christmas Carol seven years later are their priority. Mrs. Cratchit brings Bob pies at work and despite their situation, the family is happy and festive, appreciative of the little things and protective of each other because they are all they have. Anton Lesser (The Hollow Crown) as creepy, shrewd taking Fagin, however, keeps his underlings in line with food, shelter, and threats. He claims to have their best interests at heart, insisting his charity is better than these youths being on the street, yet he'll blame them to save himself from the noose. Where Dickens could only imply the Victorian severity, Dickensian realistically addresses the city underbelly, and Fagin offers to sell Nancy to Bill Sykes for fifty pounds. It's odd then, that at times, Fagin is also portrayed sympathetically, sad as his minions leave him before they kiss and make up – dragging on when their tale seems ended in order to set up the titular Oliver for a second year that would never happen. Delicious meetings between Scrooge and Fagin also come too late when their crusty curmudgeonry could have been so juicy. Why should Bethany Muir's (The Little Drummer Girl) Nancy trust in the law when girls like her die all the time and nobody cares? She's told to make nice to all the rich men, but comes to trust the Inspector and love Bill. Nancy doesn't think love can feed you or keep you warm but Mark Stanley's (Game of Thrones) Bill is saving up his money so they can start a new life. Fagin says Nancy deserves better and mocks Bill, but he's tired of being Fagin's patsy – leading to bittersweet moments when we know their tender ultimately has a terrible outcome.

With so many characters on Dickensian – listed alphabetically in the opening credits – one almost needs a who's who and from which book chart. However, some players in this ensemble are just irrelevant clutter, including ruddy nosed and gin loving Mrs. Gamp, crusty one legged Mr. Wegg, and gossipy original character Mrs. Biggetywitch. Rather than jolly good Victorian charm, these superfluous busybodies are out of place amid the murder mystery and prequel drama, and the isolated, bickering Bumbles serve no purpose but to test the fast forward button itch. During the British airing of Dickensian as twenty half-hour episodes, it must have been very easy to tune out and not go back thanks to such a crowded screen and confusing internal chronology. The edgy strings and modern theme music also sound too generic when a voluminous period score would set off the colorful frocks, carriages, antiques, pocket watches, and top hats. We don't get to see the breweries and churches nor much of a house beyond its front door facade. The grass is obviously fake and the interiors feel tight with close quarters filming, yet Dickensian's snow, horses, and birds chirping are better than time wasting CGI sweeping across a fake ye olde Londontown cityscape. Balls, chandeliers, and grand interiors contrast the fiddles and candlelit accessories while tolling bells, parchments, quills, and lanterns create period mood. Back alleys add ominous underbellies and fog sets off the whodunit flashbacks. Dickensian looks great, but the series is twice as long as it should be and not as tightly woven as the master himself could have done. If Dickensian had been made ten years prior, perhaps it would have had more Masterpiece weight than Downton melodrama. It's not as good as it could be, paling in comparison to earlier BBC adaptations such as the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, the 2005 Bleak House, and the 2011 Great Expectations. The gimmick is often more important than the narrative, and Dickensian would have worked better as television movie events – mash ups between A Christmas Carol mystery and Oliver Twist downtrodden separate from the upscale bitter of Great Expectations and Bleak House prequels. Too many characters and a lacking focus make Dickensian too complicated to lure new viewers to Dickens and those failed hopes for a second season. Having said that, the rich source material keeps Dickensian likable for literary and period piece fans thanks to entertaining moments and worthwhile performances.

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