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Despite length, screen adaptation of Dickens' Little Dorit incomplete

Tearsheets: Somerville Theater

Suggested headline: Dicken's LITTLE DORRIT brought to screen with mixed results


Directed and adapted for the screen

by Christine Edzard.

Based on the novel by Charles Dickens.

Starring Sarah Pickering, Derek Jacobi,

and Sir Alec Guinness.

Plays through Thursday at the Somerville

Theater in Davis Square.


MOST PEOPLE WOULD BALK AT watching a six-hour film version of a 900 page novel like Little Dorrit. The sad truth is, however, that even six hours of film isn't enough to do justice to such a gargantuan novel -- especially a novel written by Charles Dickens, who likes to weave subplots and characters into intricate tapestries. And considering how tricky it can be in general to translate a novel into a film, the task of properly filming Little Dorrit seems almost impossible indeed.

Undaunted, British director Christine Edzard decided to bring the novel to the screen, the first adaptation attempted since the 1930s. Her film is highly ambitious but not entirely successful. One element in her favor is that Dickens tends to convey ideas through meticulous description and narrative action, which are relatively easier to bring to film than than philosophical discussions of the type found in, say, the novels of Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Unfortunately, Edzard has left out much of Dickens' novel. She has also reduced the screentime given to several important supporting characters; keeping track of them is difficult unless one is familiar with the novel ahead of time.

For all its limitations, there is no doubt that the film is well-made, especially considering its low budget of about $10 million. It is being shown theatrically in two parts.

Part 1 is called Nobody's Fault and tells the story of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), who in modern terms can only be described as a loser. He was thoroughly dominated by his mother as a child; as an adult, he finds his childhood sweetheart to be a lazy and overweight widow, and he ends up in the Marshalsea debtors' prison after his financial ruin. But Clennam doesn't seem to realize that no one would take advantage of him if he showed more backbone; he's convinced his misfortunes are "nobody's fault."

The structure of the film seems to be the filmmakers' primary contribution. Part 1 ends as Clennam winds up in prison. Part 2 is called Little Dorrit's Story, and it is exactly that. Part 2 retells the entire chain of events, but from the perspective of Amy Dorrit (Sarah Pickering), a meek young woman -- known as Little Dorrit -- who quietly loves Clennam and eventually helps restore Clennam to his fortune. It is not until the last ten minutes or so of Part 2 that the narrative continues onward from the end of Part 1.

Edzard's adaptation has two primary characteristics, one bad and one good. First, Edzard has eliminated or softened the excessively polemical moments of Dickens novel. That is to Edzard's credit. However, she consequently has also toned down many of the political elements that reflected Dickens' motivation for writing the novel in the first place. Dickens' father was a prisoner in the Marshalsea prison during Dickens' childhood, and Dickens' himself lived in the Marshalsea for a few months with his father. Those months left an indelible impact on young Dickens, and his novel directly reflects that impact. In Edzard's film version, the political elements are all too often shortchanged, especially in Little Dorrit's Story.

What adds to the film's difficulty is that the film is about as uncinematic as any film could possibly be. Virtually every shot is a static one: the camera remains affixed in one position and only pans to follow the short movements of the actors. The camerawork is not very notable, as most of the action is centered well away from the frame edges. Indeed, significant portions of the frame are oftentimes black or considerably darkened. There are few facial close-ups, and the editing exists only to hide seams when the camera shifts its point of view.

The one great virtue of the film is that the performances by Sir Alec Guinness as Little Dorrit's father and Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam are impeccable. There is no doubt on this score: this is an actors' film, in the way that few American films are. The acting by the other highly accomplished actors (some members of the cast made their acting debut decades ago) -- as well as Sarah Pickering's acting, who makes her feature film debut as Little Dorrit --is what actually carries this film. They are what make the six hours pass by much more quickly. And in the final analysis, their performances are what make this film a trying but rewarding experience.


(The above is an expanded version of a review that ran in these pages last September when the film played in the Boston Film Festival.)