Lady Dedlock dead in her daughter, Esther Summerson’s arms (Bleak House, 2005)
Mr William Dorrit and his daughter, Amy, in the Marshalsea (Little Dorrit, 2008
Dear Friends and readers,
Here I am with yet another blog on two Andrew Davies’s films. This time I bring together his attempts to create individualized vast worlds in two films which could coherently include as much of Dickens’s huge casts, multi-plot threads, and striking episodes as the about 8 hour limit each had could hold.
The atmosphere of each is appropriate to its book and is mesmerizing. What is done is a mise-en-scene made up of a specific set of colors and kinds of scenes and places makes for the world of the film: for Bleak House it is glittering and sumptuous against abysmal wretched poverty with glittering colors.
I would characterize Bleak House as continually dark and hidden:
Let us look at its first notes and the mise-en-scene struck: we open on a huge storm, thunder, darkness, rain, an anonymous inn:
A horse neighs as a carriage rides frantically up, we are caught up in its energy and beneath the wheels, looking up:
Terror is the note, and then a young woman hooded, unknown to us, coming with baggage rushes out so as to not to be left behind (it’s Esther on her way to meet her guardian):
By contrast, for Little Dorrit, we have a gray drab palate, relieved to some extent when we go to Venice, but even there the characteristic blues and greens of the lagoons are avoided, and we are instead kept to the streets and over-furnitured houses.
So, the opening of Little Dorrit is quiet: we are before a large locked door (the Marshalsea) where we can see all too clearly:
A child is born, and we see her surrounded by mist and grey light as well as two other children, the first child of the Marshalsea born there:
And fast forward sixteen years later to the grown Amy greeted by John Chivery as she walks quietly and calmly out on her errands:
Grey-white the sky, soft the atmosphere, and the central figure one of stability, bringing kindness; we may contrast this epitomizing still of Amy on her way to meet Mrs Clenham (Judy Parfitt) to the Jarndyce dinner at home (above):
The ambition to encompass so much makes for magnificence. Where both of these differ from many of Davies’s films is the stylization is not used to distance us and make us laugh, e.g., Davies’s masterly, perhaps his most characteristic film, the 1998 Vanity Fair. Instead stylization becomes a way of exaggerating inner human traits and drive them home more deeply to us. I had left Davies’s Vanity Fair out of the list of Davies’s film adaptations I said I would write about! I will do it here as the last of this series of blogs. (As to the 2008 Sense and Sensibility, which exploits further stylization for comedy that is for my book.)
I’ve not re-watched these with the care I did the previous films, nor do I know Dickens’s novels the way I do Anthony Trollope’s or George Eliot’s. This review comes out of the impression the films make and by dint of putting it in the context of the other blogs set them into or against Davies’s corpus.
So, I just loved this Bleak House. This is one of those Dickens novels where I love the heroine: I find Esther Summerson real, intelligent, and love her for her brand of melancholy goodness, and in this film Davies brought out how her character (Anna Maxwell Martin) parallels her mother’s, visually,
and through their traits and so gave Lady Dedlock (Gillian Armstrong) more suggestive compassionate depths than I find in Dickens’s character. Mother and daughter paradigms are not rare in this film:
The series of shots which comprise the deeply moving grieving sequence of Esther Summerson over her mother Lady Dedlock (from which I take the first still for this blog) in front of the barred gate by the grave were stunningly beautiful and typical of the colors and disposition of the figures in the landscape of this film. Here the film-makers used the rich dark colors and spread-wide dresses to make the circular final open embrace.
All the characters seemed to me brilliantly acted and filmed in scenes as gratifying epitomizing. To pick just a few: Sergeant George (Hugo Speer) has long been one of my favorite Dickens characters; his attitude towards lawyers and court rooms, towards truth and loyalty in human relationships, towards human obligations within relationships is precisely analogous to that of Antony Trollope’s Mr Harding (Mr Harding is one of my favorite Trollope characters). There are more parallels between Dickens and Trollope than people think (so too Trollope and Eliot).
I was stirred by the scene emphasizing his permanent caring for his friend, Phil (Michael Smiley) who certainly would be up shit’s creek without George (and in our world). I read in newspapers how modern parents give their children X amount of time to get a job or get out.
I had quite a weep-fest. I cried intensely (I didn’t think they could do it since I know the story and some of the characters so well), and specially over Joe’s death. Tears just spilled out of my eyes often.
I rejoiced at George’s trying to shot Smallweed for his spite; Philip Davis as Smallweed caught just how poisonous and destructive the small weeds in all communities are. What Smallweed would think mighty generous is actually what is seen as generous in our world.
Alun Armstrong was brilliant as the (to Dickens, not me) good and incisively perceptive Bucket — it’s an important part. Ada’s (Carey Mulligan’s) loyalty to Richard Carstairs (Patrick Kennedy) all the while he is gradually being tempted to greed and idleness and then sickened unto death by the leech Harold Skimpole was well done, particularly her anger and resentment against those whose criticism of Richard was well-meant. Those I expected to be acted as meaner were refreshingly humane: Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock weeps for his wife, and is broken by her death (is last seen being helped along by Sergeant George who has been re-united with his mother, the Dedlock housekeeper).
The obviously evil man is evil, and Charles Dance was extraordinarily scary and powerful as the relentless Mr Tulkinghorn who will stop at no cruelty to protect the position and reputation of the Dedlock family group.
I noticed for the first time too that the Guppy type male (Burn Gorman) who adores the heroine, Esther Summerson, but is overlooked as not manly enough by Dickens is given real dignity by Davies:
This representation of the sensitive male who the heroine rejects is a repeating motif in Dickens that Davies adapts filmically very well: in Little Dorrit we have John Chivery (Russell Tovey) as the faithful sensible kindly not intelligent male (a kind of secondary Arthur Clenham) and here Amy is sorrowful not to say yes:
This is a Dickens’s paradigm and might be seen as a forerunner of the obsessive Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend where sexual anxiety and concomitant possessive turns into hatred and burning desire to destroy the beloved (in a Sandy Welch film, played splendidly by David Morrisey).
I thought too that Davies is to be commended for not just ending when the mystery is solved, or bringing all the threads together then, but allowing the narrative two more parts so it ends in a lingering manner.
I’m struck by is how varied Davies is. In this Bleak House he returns to the strong drama of his Middlemarch, but reaches for far more theatricality, stylizations and flamboyance. The camera would move as if it were a gun being shot off from house to house (rich to poor, countryside to cityscape), leaving the viewer with a sense of shock at the ironic sudden juxtapositions.
At the same time Davies’s typical concerns (or quiet obsessions) are in evidence: one can see how he again develops the older man who longs for a young woman with loving care, here sympathetically in John Jarndyce. The pairs in his other movies done with deep emotion and exquisite tact (through having the male hesitate and be embarrassed and the girl sexually innocent or unknowing at first) include Causabon & Dorothea, Knightley & Emma, Komarofsky & Lara and now John Jarndyce & Esther. The hero we remember is not Alan Woodcourt, but John Jarndyce:
Perhaps these pairs are more common in literature than I had thought; after all men (as Austen said) have had the pens more than women and this is part of many a male wet-dream. It’s disguised as father-daughter pairs in much normalizing criticism.
The two movies are joined this way: you probably have to have read the book or something about it before you watch them. Perhaps the same holds true of his He Knew He Was Right. I am heterodox enough to assert that Davies’s films both make more sense of Dickens’s than Dickens does: he puts the different stories together in a clear concise pattern, and you can see how all the parts relate to one another as you go along (the relationship of the characters) and how all are needed for the explanatory denouement.
For Little Dorrit, I recommend the reader first read Judy’s Costume Drama blog for a well-observed and worded series of descriptions of Dickens’s characters as acted by the superb cast, and for myself attempt rather a brief comparison with the strikingly different 1988 Little Dorrit by Christine Edzard.
Edzard reconceived Dickens as a subject for film adaptation at the same time as her reconception enables her to allude to and imitate some of the best adaptations in the past. As opposed to Davies, she eliminates many of Dickens’s characters, keeping only those necessary for the central plot-design, and then she goes over the same set of events, first from Arthur Clennam’s (Derek Jacobi) point of view and then Amy Dorrit (Sarah Pickering — a weak actress, alas, perhaps the daughter of Donald who played Dolly Longestaffe in the 1974 BBC Pallisers). The two parts were suffused with the atmosphere of the two characters’ minds: melancholy, lonely, alienated for Arthur, self-contained, self-controlled, loving for Amy, and beyond that deeply disturbed in his inner self for a lack of anything permanent, a genuine support in his life.
The 1988 film is a commentary type adaptation, with its bold departure (changing Dickens’s plot-design completely), elimination of grotesques and centering the drama subjectively first through the mind and experience and memories of Clennam as he remembers them (and then apparently through Little Dorrit, Sarah Pickering). Since it’s on a set (not location, that costs), there is a continual artifice so you know you are in a book. This is emphasized. Edzard built the sets carefully in a studio; they are like this vignette which was chosen for the cover for the DVD:
The acting is superb and the way Jacobi talks and remembers his time at the office so far away (showing he saw nothing of the country, learned nothing of its people, which he regrets) is a sharp hard critique of capitalism as a way of life. It therefore fits into the anti-Thatcherite costume dramas of the era which I’ve reading about in Lester Friedman’s Fires Were Started ; another is Miles Forman’s Valmont, , an adaptation of an 18th century epistolary novel also belongs too, which is also playful and artificial like this one.
I noticed many careful intertextualities woven in: for example, when Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi) comes “home” to his mother, the scene of the house, his approach, the entry reminds me of the famous 1951 Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim. Other scenes recall David Leans’ Great Expectations and the David Copperfield.
Nonetheless, I think I preferred Davies. There was so much more life in it, and it made me like Little Dorrit far more than I have ever done before. As opposed to my sympathy for Esther Summerson, I hated “little Dorrit” as a 20 year old girl reading the book. Davies has first of all made her more human by calling her Amy most of the time, and he has eliminated the totally self-sacrificing self-erasing abjection by by having the actress (Claire Foy) look intensely mortified at her father’s shameless codging for money and distressed at his false valuing of the very hierarchies which would despise him. This transformation for me depends partly on Tim Courtney’s inimitable performance as Mr Dorrit. Davies’s young woman excercises self-controll with great trouble; she is humiliated by her position in life and her father
This Amy is also aware of the limitations of her brother and sister, and when she feels and acts for them, there is in her eye and theirs an awareness she should not be doing this and they are misbehaving (taking advantage of her) badly.
Emma Pierson as Fanny also realized how she can lean on Fanny, looks grateful, and turns to Fanny for companionship and mutual hair-improvement. She is more humanized as the series goes on and shows kindness for her husband, Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto, supposed to be very stupid but kindly).
I loved Matthew Macfayden as Arthur Clenham.
Macfayden is a chameleon of an actor: he can be the ne’er-do-well Felix Carbury, insouciant, louche, shallow, overbearing, utterly self-centered (Davies’s The Way We Live Now); the sexy brooding Darcy (2005 Joe Wright P&P). Here he was the gentle and lonely, determined and saddened, cut off young man who turns to Amy because she clearly provides loving friendship and simply lives with untouchable integrity.
There was weakness in the depiction of the Meagles’ relationship with Tattycoram (Freema Agyeman) — they are not easy to present as their ambiguity and inadequacies are covered by intense hypocrisy. Here Davies falls into a movie stereotype and makes Miss Wade a narcissistic predatory lesbian chasing down a woebegone Tattycoram: this caricature is a misogynistic stereotype in movies (e.g, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal was turned from a sympathetic delving into female sexuality into a punitive one, with heterosexual women again as frustrated stifled victims).
On the other hand, the depiction of Pet Meagles’s (Georgia King) foolish choice of the shallow selfish and therefore cruel because indifference Henry Gowan (Alex Wyndham) over Clennam was brilliant. The modern take here was that Pet had failed to imagine what marriage is like, and how dependent we are for daily comfort on caring and kindness. This marriage which will go on provides a realistic moment against which we can measure the more exaggeratedly conceived unhappiness of the Merdles.
When she has a baby after much misery and painful labor (which for once we are shown), we and she sees how little he cares for real for the child and is bored by the spectacle. Wishes it would be over soon. She was too sheltered by parents who live on the surface:
I would say that Victorian/Edwardian films no matter what their specific content, function in our society to examine and express certain kinds of anxieties about sexualty in social life and the realities of family life (as opposed to the insistent pieties of security we are asked to pretend to believe in in public).
As for the poignant, fearful, maddened and violent grotesques, as Judy wrote, Alun Armstrong’s Flintwich is superlative, his body and head as twisted as his mind:
Affery (Sue Johnston) is the abused woman of that and our time:
As the head of the circumlocution office, Robert Hardy is just inimitable, supremely unreachable, dapper!
I wish I had words to express quite the devastation this man inflicts which in the film arouses a sense of laughter that is so ironic as to defy explication because we are amused instead of for the rest of our existence without hope. The use of crazed angles from afar visualized the confused distress one might feel were one subject to such a place. It’s done deliberately of course:
I noticed a new element in this film adaptation too: the paratexts at the opening of each episode which usually are bits from a previous episode summing up the previous one did not work this way — or not after the first set. From the third episode on, the bits chosen were not necessarily from the previous episode, but rather reminded us of a thread that we may have forgotten and is in the coming episode going to be developed or highlighted. This helped enormously in keeping track and reacting to the depths of the film.
To conclude, while the filmic techniques and mise-en-sceen vast tapestry created that I have tried (however inadequately) to suggest provides the emotional maelstroms that hit us, and Davies’s humanizing of the characters and bringing home to us in words that echo what we hear in our world are central to the effect of these films, I do think here it is Dickens’s larger vision which is still utterly relevant to the world we live in today intersecting with the actors standing there looking out at us, defensive, angry, not knowing what to say of this appalling mess are the true hot spots of these films.
And it hinges mostly on the two central actresses, the daughters. Look at their faces. Davies has made us feel the value of virtue’s quiet refusal to be coopted once again:
In a sense in both films the heroines do carry it; it’s arguable that many of Davies’s films are also heroine’s texts in the 18th century tradition of men in drag in novels by men (Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise &c&c) as outlined by Nancy Miller.
And now for the parents.
We have seen lots of parallels in the psychological relationships of both films. There are also many oddly alike moments or stills, and I feel that one could slip this Lady Dedlock far-shot still into Little Dorrit and the Mr Dorrit medium shot into Bleak House (say Sergeant George’s shooting school) and they’d fit right in:
I’d like to reread Little Dorrit and give Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham in it another try. I last read Bleak House when I was in my thirties (I’m now 63), and I listened to David Case reading it aloud four summers ago; I’ve not touched my Dickens Little Dorrit book since I was in my twenties and threw it across the floor in a fit of fury at Dickens’s insistence (as I took it) on a heroine who embodied a slave mentality (I allude to Malcolm X)