This is a movie that flew under the radar. For one thing, it’s very long. The production design is mostly indoors, which may be too wooden for some tastes, and the costumes from the 1800’s, with only the occasional flare for cinematic storytelling. Despite the pitfalls, it’s not gratingly so. Although the dialogue and interactions are more or less so sophisticated and may require one’s full concentration, Little Dorrit (1987) is involving.
It is impressive in terms of the scale of the storytelling despite the setting limitations. In Little Dorrit, famed English actor Alec Guinness plays William Dorrit, the gentlemanly head of a debtor’s prison in Victorian England. He sweeps visitors up in conversation and is the object of adoration of her daughter Amy, otherwise called Little Dorrit. One has a certain amount of sympathy for William Dorrit, as the story sides with him, especially evident in the final scenes which are breathtakingly good and highlight the divide between rich and poor.
It’s all based on Charles Dickens reportedly satirical novel about being rich and poor in Victorian society. Part one—the three hour It’s Nobody’s Fault—is seen through the eyes of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), who becomes involved with the business of William Dorrit (Alec Guinness). William’s daughter Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering) is the seamstress of Clennam’s mother to earn a crust. Clennam aims to help them get out of the debtor’s prison with the help of a lawyer.
Part two is much the same storyline as part one, but told through the ‘eyes’ of Little Dorrit (or Amy). Scene after scene is framed to see the second half through the perspective of Little Dorrit. One finds respect for her, her kindness, genuineness, good manners and even temperament standing out, which made quite an impression.
I loved the cast and characters. With a sprawling cast, Little Dorrit is filled with good performances and interesting characters. As Clennam, Derek Jacobi exudes a youthful air. Clennam’s fineness and reserve is the surface but he is secretly in love. Clennam’s also impeccably generous which reveals nobility.
As Cleenam’s mother, Joan Greenwood is frightfully straightforward. Her reading of the Bible is of a punitive passage in the book of the prophets at exactly eight o’clock and no bible context is given. With her bubbly personality and effervescence in a reserved society, Miriam Margolyes as Flora Finching stands out in the sense that she seems out of place, but in a good way.
Roshan Seth’s exuberance is catching, his cockney accent a change of pace from his refinement in Gandhi and a villain’s off-colour charm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The actual logistics of undertaking a film told from two character’s perspectives would be painstaking to produce, but effective and very satisfying.
Little Dorrit (1987) ****½ Starring: Derek Jacobi, Sarah Pickering, Alec Guinness, Roshan Seth. Writer/Director: Christine Edzard. Running time: About six hours.