And so the mystery begins as the opening episode of Masterpiece Classic’s Little Dorrit puts us on the trail of whodunnit. Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen) the anti prodigal son returns home from abroad after several years to fulfill the mysterious death bed wish of his father “to put it right” by promising to place his gold watch in his mother’s hand. On return to England, his hesitant reunion with his mother foreshadows their troubled relationship.
Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt) is indifferent to his unexpected arrival and the news that her husband’s death, but rattled by the gold watch he brings for her and its mysterious contents, a slip of fabric hidden in its casing with the ominous message “Do not forget.” Arthur sees through her stony reaction to the watch and flatly asks her what his father’s request means suspecting some secret behind it. She denies anything, but her reaction and his prompt dismissal feed his curiosity.
When Arthur meets young Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy) working as a seamstress for his mother who already has two servants to attend to her needs (and has never been charitable to anyone in her life) he thinks that there might be some connection between the Dorrit family and his father’s death bed request and follows her home, astounded to find her a resident of Marshalsea debtors prison, where her family has lived her entire life of 22 years. Are the Dorrit’s the wrong that he must put right?
I did not expect the story to play out like a mystery investigation, but I can see how screenwriter Andrew Davies could slant Charles Dickens’s huge novel about debt and its effect on the individual and society into a more modern interpretation similar to the popular television detective series Law and Order. At pertinent moments, I waited for the ominous “doink doink” sound to herald the beginning of an important scene illustrated by a black band with white text at the bottom indicating the time and location of the event unfolding! Little Dorrit was originally broadcast in 14 installments on the BBC last fall. You can see the plot build to a climax of suspense every half hour like clockwork. This can be a bit distracting, though this pacing is very similar to Dickens’s original serial publication, so it does work. I wish PBS had chosen to air it in this original format. Since there are so many characters and a very complex plot, it allows viewers to absorb, reflect, and research before the new installment.
Even though this dark story of debt and the imprisonment of the human spirit is quite pertinent to our current economic woes, it does have a comedic element introduced by the Meagels family, (Bill Paterson, Janine Duvitski and Georgia King), Amy Dorrit’s gold-digging sister Fanny (Emma Pierson) and her dotty suitor Edmund Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto), and one of my favorites Flora Finching (Ruth Jones) as the former sweetheart of Arthur Clennam who reminds me a Cabbage Patch doll my niece once had. Dickens knows how to balance out his narrative with both positive and negative personalities, though it is at times difficult to tell which side of the fence some of the comedic ones reside.
The story continues next Sunday, April 5th on PBS. (check you local listings) I am hooked.
Further resources for Little Dorrit