BBC Video // 2008 // 452 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // June 12th, 2009
Nothing mini about this series.
There's a lot to like about Little Dorrit, and fans of both Dickens and British costume drama are likely to eat this up with a big side helping of modernist social awareness. For the rest of us, though, it's a major time commitment with not enough payoff. It has a good central mystery, but there's too much peripheral content with minor characters.
The titular character, played here by Claire Foy (Season of the Witch), captures the eye of wealthy young bachelor Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen, Frost/Nixon) when he returns from overseas. Investigating her leads Arthur to a debtor's prison, where Amy Dorrit lives with her elderly father. Arthur also immediately suspects that Amy's father (Tom Courtenay, Nicholas Nickelby) has some connection to his own past and a number of family secrets. Meanwhile, a vicious murderer named Rigaud (Andy Serkis, Flushed Away) is also closing in on the situation...
Although most of Dickens' works deal with the social injustices of 19th Century London, I've not seen any that deal with social injustices as explicitly as Little Dorrit. It takes place primarily at a debtor's prison, where a mystery haunts all of the central characters. This allows for a very close view of the poverty and struggles of the poor characters, but it also creates a surprising parallel between the two distinct classes. While Mr. Dorrit is a shameless money-grubber living off the charity of those around him, there are a number of similar situations among the rich: they simply have more money around them to grub. Dickens was able to see the humanity in both of these groups, as well as their tendency to be less than humane.
There is, as is usually the case, no question that Little Dorrit is a Dickens adaptation. The pacing, the structure, and the messy tangle of characters all feel familiar. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, given the 14-episode structure of the series. On one hand, this feels like a much more thorough adaptation than the films I've seen based on Dickens' work. Each detail is rendered with painstaking care, and I suspect fans of the novel will relish the work that has gone into it. As well, the 30-minute episodes work well, as Dickens did originally write his novels in separately published segments, each with a cliffhanger ending. Little Dorrit not only replicates the vast majority of the story, but also the format of the original text.
Of course, the enjoyment of all this depends heavily on the viewers' feelings towards Dickensian storytelling. In truth, many parts of Little Dorrit are a bit dry. I found myself longing for a nice, short adaptation with some of the narrative fat trimmed from the edges. While the central mystery of the story is quite intriguing, some of the stories with secondary characters feel completely unnecessary. They all intersect eventually, but a bit of creativity could have allowed the production team to make a much leaner, cleaner miniseries. Still, that was clearly not the goal, and I know fans will thank them for it.
Thankfully, the cast is largely excellent. Most of the players nail the necessary tone for this period piece -- colorful characters played just a bit over-the-top for emotional impact. The only exception to this is Andy Serkis, whose murderous Rigaud has a little too much Kong and not enough Gollum. It's not a bad performance, but it doesn't fit with everything else that's going on. This disjointedness doesn't just occur in the performances. The whole series feels like a television miniseries. While it is filmed well, especially in intimate moments, many sequences use fast camera motion to try to disguise the low budget. The pace of the series suggests a rollicking epic, but the 30 minute episodes feel quite short individually. I suspect it will be highly popular with those that have the patience for these inconsistencies and a passion for Dickens' story, but others will spend much of the time waiting for the main mystery to continue.
As far as DVD transfers go, it's hard to go wrong with this BBC release. While I remember the horrifying transfers from BBC Video a few years ago (PAL to NTSC transfers cause every studio to stumble), the international shift to high-def broadcasting has done them a world of good. While Little Dorrit looks a bit washed out at times, this video transfer is sharp and clean, with few artifacts of any kind. The sound is also fine, though never draws attention to itself. It is presented in stereo, and a 5.1 transfer may have helped the dialogue come out a bit cleaner. Still, it's easy to understand what everyone is saying, and believe me, they say a lot. In terms of extras, we get a production featurette as well as a picture gallery. For those who missed the show on television, this is a good way to see it.
Although it probably doesn't sound that way, I did like Little Dorrit. It has a great feel, as well as some wonderful performances. With fewer episodes to wade through, I would be willing to give it an unqualified recommendation. As it stands, though, I can only recommend it for those that already know they will love it. Others will probably get too bored to reach the answers that lie at the end.
Not guilty of anything but bringing an overly long case to trial. Next time,
a little less irrelevant evidence would be nice.
Review content copyright © 2009 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 452 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Image Gallery
* Official Site