“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.

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“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review

“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review”

I might as well make one thing clear . . . when I first saw “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”, I had never read Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials”.  But this did not deter my interest in seeing the movie based upon the first novel, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”. And quite frankly, I am glad that I had seen it. 

Directed by Chris Weitz, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” opened with the beginning of the “HIS DARK MATERIALS” saga. In it, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), lives at Jordan College (of Oxford University) in an alternate dimension of Great Britain. She saves er uncle, world explorer/scholar Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from being poisoned by the Magisterium (the dimension’s religious ruling body) after he has revealed his discovery of elementary particles called Dust – something that the ruling body consider a threat to their authority. After her uncle departs upon an expedition to the North to find more Dust, Lyra befriends another scholar and explorer named Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) during a dinner held at Jordan College. While visiting Mrs. Coulter in London, Lyra learns that her hostess is a member of the Magisterium and has participated in the kidnapping of young children, including two of her friends – a kitchen servant named Roger, and a Gyptian boy named Billy Costa. She also discovers that Mrs. Coulter wants her hands on the last alethiometer, a device that resembles a golden compass. This device, which was given to Lyra by Jordan College’s Master, is able to reveal the answer to any question asked by the user.

After escaping Mrs. Coulter’s London flat, Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians, who plans to rescue Billy and the other children. They take Lyra to the Norweigian town of Trollsund, where she meets an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot). She also meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) who is a queen of the witches, and an armoured bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan). With her new friends, Lyra embarks upon an adventure that leads her to a conflict between her friend Iorek and the false king of the amored bears, Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane); and to Bolvangar, an experimental station in the North where the Magisterium are severing the Gyptian children from their daemons. Before the movie ends Lyra learns that Lord Asriel has been captured by Magisterium spies and that Mrs. Coulter plans to assassinate him. She, Roger, Scoresby and Serafina set out to rescue the endangered explorer by the end of the movie.

Like any other movie, good or bad, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had its flaws. There were three of them that I found noticeable. One, the movie’s plot seemed rather vague on Lord Asriel’s fate after he was captured by the Magisterium’s spies in the North. Serafina gave a brief explanation to Scoresby near the end, as they set out to find Asriel. But still . . . I found it vague. Two, the editing by Anne V. Coates seemed a bit choppy in a few spots. And most importantly, the movie’s pacing . . . at least in the first third, seemed very rushed. Some people have complained that too many aspects of the story had been stuffed in the script. I personally feel that Weitz had simply rushed the story. By the time Lyra and the Gyptians reached Trollsund, the director seemed to have finally found a natural pace.

However, I must admit that “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Honestly, it is quite good. The story was intriguing. Chris Weitz did a decent job in adapting Pullman’s novel for film, even if he did rush the first third of the story. I simply adored Henry Braham’s photography and Ruth Myer’s costume designs – especially Nicole Kidman’s elegant, 1930s style costumes. But I must commend Richard L. Johnson. Chris Lowe and Andy Nicholson for their sumptious art direction (for which they earned an Oscar nomination) – especially their view of London in Pullman’s world.  Dennis Gassner deserved an Oscar nomination for his production design, as far as I am concerned.  However, the Visual Effects team won a well-deserved Oscar for their re-creation of the magic featured in the world in Pullman’s saga.

The actors were first rate. What does one expect from a cast with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay? I especially have to give kudos to Craig who seemed like the embodiment of the ruthless, yet enthusiastic scholar Lord Asriel. And Nicole Kidman brought great style, charm and ruthlessness to the role of the villainous Mrs. Coulter. But she also gave the character a much needed pathos, when the lady revealed to our young heroine that she was the latter’s mother. It was quite thrilling to see Eva Green as a woman of action in her portrayal of the queen witch, Serafina Pekkala. Ian McKellan and Ian McShane were excellent as the feuding armored bears. And Jim Carter (who is married to HARRY POTTER actress Imelda Staunton) was most intimidating as the Gyptians’ king, John Faa. Seeing Sam Elliot’s portrayal as the charming aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, reminded me why I have remained a fan of his for so long. His scenes with young Dakota Blue Richards really crackled. He seemed like the embodiment of a fine wine that has aged very well.

“THE GOLDEN COMPASS”‘s center . . . the character that held the movie together was none other than first-time British actress, Dakota Blue Richards. This young lady was a find. She was absolutely perfect as the charming, yet bold and cunning Lyra. Some Washington D.C. critic had compared her unfavorably to another actress named Dakota – namely Dakota Fanning. Granted, the latter is an excellent actress, but so is Miss Richards. She managed to convey all of Lyra’s complex traits without turning the character into an adult in a child’s body. She was simply superb.

I am sure there are fans of Pullman’s novels who are disappointed that the movie did not turn out to be an exact adaptation of the literary version. All I can say is I am sorry, but I have never heard of any movie being an exact adaptation of its literary source. And if you are hoping to find one in the future, you will be disappointed. Yes, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. What movie does not? But it certainly had enough virtues, including a superb leading actress, that made it enjoyable . . . at least for me.