“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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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

“SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

After finally seeing the 2008 Academy Award winning Best Picture,”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, I am beginning to suspect that this film had garnered a great deal of unnecessarily extreme reactions. Moviegoers either loved it with every fiber of their being or considered it as either vastly overrated or insulting to the citizens of India. My reaction to the movie has been neither.

Directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and written by Simon Beaufoy, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (Kaun Banega Crorepati, mentioned in the Hindi version) and exceeds people’s expectations, arousing the suspicions of the game show host and of law enforcement officials. Beaufoy based his script upon the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-nominated novel, ”Q & A” (2005), written by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup.

The question is – do I believe that ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” had deserved its Best Picture Oscar? Honestly? No, I do not. In fact, the movie did not even make my list of Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2008. In some ways, I do feel that it is slightly overrated. No movie is perfect, but the flaws in this movie – or aspects of the movie I saw as flaws – made me wonder how it managed to win Oscars in the Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. I realize that this movie is based upon Swarup’s novel, in which the plot is centered around a popular game show. But I really could have done without this particular plot device. I found the scenes that featured Jamal Malik’s moments during the question-and-answer sessions of the game show unnecessarily dramatic. This plot device also provided a ridiculously over-the-top ‘happy ending’ that provided a sharp contrast to most of the story. And the idea that the game show questions provided triggers to Jamal’s reminisces about his childhood and his feelings about Latika, a girl he first fell in love with following the deaths of their parents in a mob attack did not exactly work for me. It seemed . . . off. There were times when director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy made it difficult to keep track on what Jamal was reminiscing in regard to the question he was being asked on the game show. By biggest complaints centered around the movie’s second half, the characterization of Latika and Chris Dickens’ editing.

At least two-thirds of ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” are focused around the boyhoods of Jamal’s recollections of his childhood in the slums of Mumbai with his older brother, Salim. In my opinion, this was the movie’s strongest part. It was not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the second half. There have been complaints that Boyle’s savage look into Mumbai’s slums is not the real India. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I would not know. I have never seen the real India. I must admit that the series of incidents presented in the movie’s first half left me feeling that I was watching an Anglo-Indian version of a Charles Dickens novel. Especially ”Oliver Twist”. And I found it fascinating, despite the squalor presented on the screen. But once the movie’s setting shifted to 2006 Mumbai, I found myself mired in a contrived story in which the rescue of Jamal’s love, Latika, from a wealthy gangster depended upon his success on the ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” show. As it turned out, Latika ended up being rescued by Jamal’s gangster brother, Salim.

Speaking of Latika, she proved to be another problem. Quite frankly, I found her character rather one-dimensional and frustrating. She seemed to be the ultimate example of the damsel-in-distress archetype. Jamal saw her as his”destiny”. I saw her as this rather uninteresting character that became nothing more than a trophy for various character – including Jamal. There was one scene in which Salim decided to claim Latika as a sex partner after he had saved her and Jamal by killing some minor gangster whom she worked for. Jamal naturally tried to prevent Salim from claiming Latika. Latika did nothing . . . until she agreed to sleep with Salim to prevent him from hurting Latika. And I . . . was disgusted. She could have easily helped Jamal overcome Salim. Instead, she stood there like an idiot before offering herself to the older brother. The only time Latika ever really did something for herself was when she unsuccessfully tried to flee from the wealthy gangster. She was a very frustrating character and I felt sorry for the actresses – especially Freida Pinto – forced to portray such an uninteresting character. One last problem I had with this movie was Chris Dickens’ editing. It seemed like it was more appropriate for a MTV music video clip, instead of a two hour movie. Worse, it interfered with my enjoyment of Anthony Dod Mantle’s colorful cinematography. What makes this nauseating is that Dickens managed to win an Oscar for his work.

On the whole, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is pretty good movie that tries to give Westerners a peek into late 20th century and early 21st century India. The movie can boast some first rate performances by the movie’s lead actor, Dev Petel, who portrayed the 18 year-old Jamal, Tanay Chheda as the pre-adolescent Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Tanay Chheda as the early adolescent Salim. I was also impressed by Irrfan Khan’s performance as the police inspector who interrogated Jamal throughout most of the movie. He and Petel created a very interesting screen team. As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by Mantle’s cinematography in the movie. Despite the squalor that permeated the scenes featuring Jamal and Salim’s childhood, he infused the photography with color, energy and sweep. And what can I say about the exciting music featured in this film? I loved it. A. R. Rahman definitely deserved his Oscar for one of the most exciting and original film scores I have heard in years . . . and that includes ”Jai Ho”, the song he wrote for the film. By the way, he earned a well deserved Oscar for that as well.

Considering the eight (8) Academy Awards that it had earned, I wish I could say that it deserved all of its awards. But I do not think it did. Despite the movie’s first-rate cast, Mantle’s excellent photography and Rahman’s superb score, I cannot say that it was the best movie I had seen in 2008. In fact, it failed to make my list of 10 favorite movies for that year. Frankly, I found Simon Beaufoy’s script rather uneven and his characterization of the Latika character one-dimensional. And Danny Boyle failed to rise above these flaws with his direction. But . . . despite the movie’s flaws, I could honestly say that it would have made my list of the top 20 movies of 2008.