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TELEVISION REVIEW

Dickens meets 'Lost' in PBS's 'Dorrit'

Claire Foy plays Amy Dorrit, the title character in the ''Masterpiece'' miniseries. Claire Foy plays Amy Dorrit, the title character in the ''Masterpiece'' miniseries.
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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What if this review of PBS's remarkable "Little Dorrit" opens with a comparison to ABC's "Lost"? That's like holding an antique fountain pen next to a computer mouse - or is it?

Like "Lost," the new five-part Charles Dickens adaptation is built around an intricate, coincidence-filled backstory and a daisy chain of characters with carefully chosen names (Kate Austen, meet Edmund Sparkler). Across eight rich hours, this new "Masterpiece" miniseries sets forth the pieces of a TV puzzle with a narrative sprawl surprisingly similar to "Lost," whose producers, by the way, are known Dickens aficionados.

Or maybe the first push in this review ought to belong to the amazing timeliness of Dickens's story, published serially between 1855-57. "Little Dorrit," which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Channel 2, isn't just a generally relevant tale of poverty and self-esteem, one that can easily evoke our recession-era empathy. Quite specifically, it is a 19th-century portrait of the Madoff scandal, as a crowd of Londoners lose their fortunes to a Ponzi-scheming character with the Madoff-like (and French punny) name of Mr. Merdle. Alas, some things - too many things - never change.

Whatever it takes to interest you in this adaptation of one of Dickens's less popularized novels, that's what I'd like to start with. If you're at all inclined toward TV's literary efforts, you'll find much to savor in this production, which was written by Andrew Davies, the prolific screenwriter who gave us PBS's "Pride and Prejudice" in 1995 and "Bleak House" in 2006. "Little Dorrit" has so many virtues - indelible performances, stirring pathos, and an emotional and psychological heft unusual for Dickens - that you can forgive its one significant flaw (more on that later).

There are two families at the center of the action, with an interlocking array of characters between them. The Dorrits live in Marshalsea debtors' prison, where William Dorrit (Tom Courtenay) has established himself as the "Father of the Marshalsea." He's locked in, but his three children can come and go as they please, including his youngest daughter, Amy (Claire Foy), a kind waif who quietly caters to her father's grandiosity and self-pity. The Clennams inhabit a rotting, creaking London townhouse, where the cold Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt) is imprisoned in her wheelchair. When her son, Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen), returns from the East with news of his father's death, Mrs. Clennam is unmoved.

Amy goes to work as a seamstress for Mrs. Clennam, which sets the "Little Dorrit" plot in motion. Arthur is fascinated by his mother's strange affection for Amy, and he decides to pursue information about the history of William Dorrit's incarceration. In true satirical Dickensian fashion, he gets no help untangling Dorrit's records at the government's Circumlocution Office, which is fittingly designed with a spiral staircase and circular floor pattern. And so he hires the scrappy Mr. Pancks - played with snorting brilliance by Eddie Marsan - to do detective work. Meanwhile, Amy becomes quietly smitten with Arthur.

Amy and Arthur are a pleasingly underwhelming duo, not the towering lovers of which legendary romantic pairings are made. Arthur is fairly drab, with none of the wit or confidence of more conventional heroes. He's a mensch, and Macfadyen - who exuded alt-rock-star attitude as Mr. Darcy in the 2005 big-screen "Pride and Prejudice" - is perfect here. He's a little scowly, but his eyes are clear and strong and his voice is velvety and compassionate. Foy's Amy is slightly more robust than the ghostly, selfless girl of the novel, but her small, ready smile gives the character a needed cinematic presence.

There's not a bum performance in the ensemble around Macfadyen and Foy. Russell Tovey will break your heart as the shy Marshalsea turnkey John Chivery, who is in love with Amy. Ruth Jones is excruciatingly good as Arthur's childhood sweetheart, Flora, now a desperate widow who still dresses like a little girl, in the manner of Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" And Andy Serkis - he was Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy - is creepy and over-the-top as a French villain who knows and exploits valuable information.

But the miniseries unquestionably belongs to Courtenay, who has been nominated for two Oscars (for "Doctor Zhivago" and "The Dresser"). He makes the financially pendulous William Dorrit into a complex figure who is both regal and pathetic, proud and driven by shame. Courtenay is riveting, in the same way Gloria Swanson is in "Sunset Blvd." - grotesque, deluded, vain, fragile, and larger than life. Like the visual style of "Little Dorrit," which includes rocking and off-center camerawork, he is stagy and yet consistently affecting. Pivoting on Courtenay's performance, "Little Dorrit" is less a piece of scathing social commentary than it is an exploration of the psychic tolls of money.

Oh, yeah, the flaw.

For all its feeling, "Little Dorrit" does not wrap up well, which is a no-no when it comes to Dickens. Indeed, a Dickens denouement needs to be neat, as consoling as a fairy tale after a nightmare. When Davies takes liberties with a peripheral character named Miss Wade, who has lesbian leanings, it's OK. He doesn't break the period spell with his contemporary revision. But the loose strings that Davies leaves dangling at the end of this script are frustrating. All the carefully built mystery implodes in the final act, as the importance of a number of characters, including Miss Wade, and the backstory itself are left murky in ways that Dickens made clear.

Is this the result of sloppy re-editing, since "Little Dorrit" originally aired in 14 short episodes in England? Or did Davies and the miniseries' three directors simply lose track of the many subplots in their quest for character development? It's hard to imagine how this happened in the course of such an otherwise mindful endeavor. And yet "Little Dorrit" is still rewarding, for the long journey, if not for the final stop.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

LITTLE DORRIT Starring: Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay, Judy Parfitt, Eddie Marsan, Andy Serkis, Ruth Jones

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday, 9-11

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