Little Dorrit
by Phil Boatwright

The Tales of Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit, adapted by Andrew Davies, comes to miniseries form and airs Sundays, March 29 through April 26, 2009 on PBS (check local listings) at 9 p.m. ET. It stars Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit, along with Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay, Alun Armstrong, Andy Serkis, Emma Pierson and Judy Parfitt. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Dearbhla Walsh, Adam Smith and Diarmuid Lawrence.

SERIES SYNOPSIS: One of Charles Dickens' greatest love stories also has the timely theme of chronic debt and financial collapse. Adapted by Andrew Davies (Bleak House), the five-part miniseries stars Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley) as hero Arthur Clennam, newcomer Claire Foy as Amy “Little” Dorrit, and Tom Courtenay (The Golden Compass) as her father, who has been incarcerated for 25 years for insolvency. Scores of other great actors appear in this moving tale that was particularly close to Dickens' heart, since his own father did time in debtor's prison.

PREVIEW REVIEW: Over the years I’ve seen some extraordinary miniseries; Winds Of War, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Captains and the Kings come to mind. Lately, the miniseries has become a dying art form. I’m assuming that has to do with economics and not, I pray, to the not giving of a farthing for character development upon the part of TV network moguls. Wouldn’t that be a shame if the farthest we wanted to go with character study could be summed up with which contender TV’s reality bachelor chose?

Anyway, PBS has faced the economic forces or whatever may be the enemy of the miniseries, and spit in its eye. And with Little Dorrit, we are the better for it. The first segment is well done, but by Part 3, you’re hooked. And by part 5, you’re wishing there were more to come. Alas, those weekly installments will go by quickly. And if you are like me, you’ll need another fix of great writing. There is a cure. I understand this guy Dickens wrote several novels.

As for the quality of this production, newcomer Claire Foy is delightful. The look of the project, the dialogue, the need to do the right thing on the part of the male lead, the rags-to-riches-and-back-again motif (relatable to today’s audience due to the financial corruption we see on our nightly news) all serve to entertain and enrich the viewer. Manning the directorial reins, Dearbhla Walsh, Adam Smith and Diarmuid Lawrence each handle their chores with a visceral style that hooks us from episode one until the end. And screenwriter Andrew Davies is able to grasp Charles Dickens’ narrative style. It’s a story dealing with cruelty and justice, malevolence and compassion, romance and suspense, and wrong-doing and forgiveness.

But here’s the main reason I enjoyed this version of the Dickens’ classic – Tom Courtenay (Dr. Zhivago, The Dresser, Happy New Year). Watch him closely. It is a three-dimensional performance. Even when he’s being a jerk, which is most of the time, you feel pity for him. Much of that is in the writing, but it’s the actor who makes us care about this poor soul. Even when he doesn’t have a great deal to say in a scene, he still steals it. Indeed, I’m betting his thespian gamesmanship brought every other actor on the set up to their best. Mr. Courtenay’s sometimes subtle, sometimes grandiose realization of Papa Dorrit may be some of the best acting I’ve seen.

Insightful, engaging, with a brilliant performance by Tom Courtenay, this is one miniseries you’ll wish the week would hurry by in order to see the next installment.

TV-PG. Beware, the adult subject matter and some violence, including the on-screen stabbing to death of a drunken man, and the suicide of another – we see his dead body in a bloody tub of water – is not for little ones. There are a few other deaths, but the film’s content is handled with discretion.

After viewing this production, try renting another Dickens screen adaptation, Great Expectations (the 1946 version). Several Oscars went to this Edwardian saga about an orphan and his mysterious benefactor. John Mills heads the English cast and it is directed by David Lean (Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia). Great care was taken to keep Dickens’ style intact. Mr. Dickens’ storytelling ability masterfully incorporated the use of language to entertain, inform and enlighten. No one did it better (well, maybe that other English guy).