Picks and Pans Review: Little Dorrit

updated 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There are 242 actors, extras excluded, in this enthralling film version of the Charles Dickens novel. Not one gives a weak performance. Screenwriter Christine (Tales of Beatrix Potter) Edzard, directing her first feature, delivers Dickens to the screen in full, flinty vigor. Little Dorrit, which no less a critic than George Bernard Shaw proclaimed Dickens' masterpiece and "a more seditious book than Das Kapital" bristles with rage against a Victorian England blighted by slippery financiers, incompetent politicians, bumbling bureaucrats, social climbers and a relentless pursuit of wealth. Dickens' themes seem as timely as Tom Wolfe's in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Edzard cannily underlines the then-and-now resemblances. Don't be put off because the film, shown in two parts of three hours each, is long. It's never long-winded. Part I is dominated by Derek (I, Claudius) Jacobi, who plays Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged Milquetoast oppressed by an avaricious, Bible-thumping mother (the late, irreplaceable Joan Greenwood). Arthur rouses himself to aid the family seamstress Amy Dorrit, played by newcomer Sarah Pickering. Raised and half-starved in the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, where her father has been an inmate for 23 years, the stunted Amy is 22 but looks half her age. In a shocking reversal, Amy's father, William, leaves prison after inheriting a fortune, while Clennam—the victim of bad investments—replaces him in the Marshalsea. Edzard covers much the same ground in Part II, but this time from the point of view of Little Dorrit. Color, light and warmth enter a world Arthur saw as bleak. Little Dorrit, spurning her new riches, returns to help Arthur, who reciprocates her love and finds redemption in a life of modesty. This story, with its central symbol of a world imprisoned by greed, was intensely personal to Dickens, whose father (the model for William Dorrit) had been jailed in the Marshalsea. As the self-deluding old Dorrit, Alec Guinness gives the performance of his life, capturing the character's comic and tragic dimensions with magisterial subtlety. Cheers also to the hilarious Miriam Margolyes as the fat, flirtatious Flora Finching, Roshan Seth as the rent collector Pancks, Max Wall as the venomous steward Flintwinch and Eleanor Bron as the scheming Mrs. Merdle, wife of the financial whiz who brings so many to ruin. There are more acting triumphs here than you can shake an Oscar at. Each actor goes beyond the exquisite period details to cut to the soul of the character. Dickens is superlatively served. Ditto the audience. (G)

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