on 16 April 2014
It's a dark and curious Dickens, not of the Gothic splendour of Great Expectations, but pawky and grim, foggy, dusty... His penultimate novel, and all the stranger because, in this version at least, Peter Vaughn is playing the good guy - the lovely Golden Dustman, the delightful Mr Nicodemus Boffin.
The story hangs around a legacy (like Bleak House and Oliver Twist!) but the villain of this piece is a throughly dislikeable schoolmaster named Bradley Headstone (David Morrisey) aided and abetted by the detestable Charley Hexham (Paul Bailey) and with a black dog on his back in the shape of David Bradley as Rogue Riderhood. It's rather closer to a Victorian mellodrama than some other Dickens stories - but it's also *so* dirty.
It's hard to escape the fact that the source of Boffin's wealth is the mounds of dust, dirt and cinder accumulated and dumped by London's dustcarts, because it gets everywhere - even the polite society of Lady Tippins, the Veneerings and the Lamles - all plainly wishing that Boffin wasn't among them, but far too polite to say so - seems to occupy a bubble floating on the surface of the dirt, and in permanant danger of breaking. Meanwhile it is something of a contest between the two Lamles to decide which is the more unpleasant.
Money, the things people do to get it, the misery caused by the lack of it, and the malice of those that have it, is the theme here, rather as if the pervasive dust and the contaminating smears of money are one and the same. The mounds are without a doubt, a horrible place to work, though the brickfields of Bleak House may run them a close second.
And like the broken goods buried in the dust, this world is full of broken people; Silas Weg with his wooden leg, Sloppy with his aimiably dull wits, and Bella Wilfer with her broken nature that she might (just) summon up the effort to mend; poor, love-lorn Mr Venus, the articulator of bones, and even the friendship between John Harmon and Eugene Waryburn that looks like it may break over Lizzie Hexham.
And wierd, damaged Jenny Wren making little dolls, and treating her father as a little boy; Pieter Breughel's World Turned Upside Down is only just around the corner. Bradley Headstone stalks the landscape of the tale like a gravedigger, while the lone wolf, Rogue Riderhood, stalks him - Mr Bradley in the role that probably got him cast as Filch - the bad guys and their bad world really do seem likely to win right up to the end, and it seems genuinely unlikely that there will be a happy ending.
Steven Mackintosh is the eponymous Friend - John Harmon - though not a particularly warm nor appealing one.
on 13 September 2013
Our Mutual Friend is my favourite Dickens novel. Its heroines are something more than his usual sweet ciphers of virtue, and there are two powerful love stories that run from the beginning to the end of the book and bolt all the fill-up-the-episodes stuff together.
The stars that cross each pair of lovers - money in one case and class in the other - still pulse in our own time. And, in Eugene Wrayburn, we have our first recorded urban fox, a young country gentleman of decayed family and decaying promise scavenging in the rubbish (`sauntering' around Limehouse Hole), hunted all across the city by dogged Mr Headstone and his puppy of a pupil but always a mischievous and casual predator to the ends of his handsome whiskers.
This is a lovely production, lit like an old master. Some story-threads - the seduction of Miss Podsnap by proxy, the purchasing of a Rotten Borough (like Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend is an historical novel, set a generation before Dickens wrote it) - have been stripped out. There is only so much you can fit in six episodes, and the main narrative fills the six episodes to the brim.
The minor parts are spot on - typecast maybe, but Dickens's over-the-top characterisation often demands (for instance) a Rogue Riderhood who has been doing gaunt criminal pariahs since Blake was flying the Liberator. My personal silver thrippenny bits go to him and the melancholy taxidermist.
With some of the central quartet, however, liberties have been taken. Not with Bella - she is right out of the book. I can't imagine a more engaging Bella than Anna Friel's, growing up in front of our eyes (taught how to charm on pa's knee in her nightie: `Be a Lovely Woman', as the transactional analysts would say; and then gradually learning that what matters is to be a Loving Woman). And Stephen Mackintosh's John Rokesmith - nothing at all like the tough dark man that Dickens describes - is convincing as the `kept down' loner and damaged child that the character actually is: that change works. He hangs around looking sad with shirt sleeves longer than his arms and it's quite exhilarating when he eventually gets moderately violent.
Paul McGann, however, is much too old for Wrayburn (who, in the book, is only 27, and who has fading youth in his every action and speech). I do like Mr McGann, but all his good acting and undeniable charm cannot hide the fact that Lizzie is being seduced by a middle-aged man who must be thoroughly aware of what he is up to with an illiterate, unprotected girl - and this distorts the love story. And Keeley Hawes's Lizzie Hexham is the most miscast (or misdirected) of all. She looks very beautiful, like a Rossetti (or rather a Waterhouse) model in the clouds of a back-lit red wig - but she never gives the impression of physical strength and moral certainty distilled out of a cruel hard childhood. And her speech is so mimsy: rather than the Limehouse patois that the character would have talked it's on the posh side of Welwyn Garden City. It seems as if the union of a gentleman with a slum girl from the foul riverside wasn't just too ugly for the novel's Victorian snobs to bear the thought of: a hundred and fifty years later our producer and director also felt they had to tone it down!
There is more raw truth in Bradley Headstone, probably the best thing in the adaptation. David Morrissey can certainly do cold menace with few words - see his more recent Northumberland in The Hollow Crown - but the schoolmaster here is pitiful too. One is gradually drawn to be on the poor man's side - in everything short of wishing him to get his creepy hands on even this genteel, diminished Lizzie.
No TV adaptation is ever perfect for a reader who loves the book, but you won't be disappointed if you watch this; it's good.
on 1 March 2012
This DVD is definitely worth the money, and I'd recommend it to anyone.
I don't think this production is perfect -- not, for example, in the same class as the TV adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett or a number of other successful adaptations I could mention. Nevertheless, it is very good.
First, as something SEEN, it is, of course, a treat. And here is where the medium excels. Watching something like this reminds one how visually literate19th-century people were. There were shoddily built buildings, but brutalist architecture was unknown. Women's fashions impress, too. Nowadays, so many clothes, even for women, are hopelessly utilitarian, ugly, or in poor taste; expensive showpiece clothes from highly paid designers are often silly, boring, or intended to shock rather than please. But these people had a highly developed visual sense and knew what looked good. When you see Bella in a ball-gown with her hair up, you can literally SEE how she would entrance. One doesn't really get the visual aspect of that world when one reads a book but doesn't see with the eyes -- or only occasionally and in black-and-white photos.
To the characters. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin seem well cast to me. I think the two young women, Bella and Lizzie -- two important characters here -- came across well. They were well-chosen, their different styles of beauty and manner as one might have imagined them from the book. Lizzie one might describe as a "handsome" woman with very good features and a quiet manner. Bella, as a "pretty" woman, smaller and daintier with a livelier and more girlish manner. One could see how Bella might appeal to a rather young man like John Harmon. They would be around the same age -- 19 -- but Lizzie has had to grow up rather fast.
John Harmon, the central character in the book, was, I thought, not cast so well. He should really have been bigger, stronger, and slightly older. One recalls that Dickens describes him as having an arm like a sailor's and that in one scene (not shown in this adaptation) Riderhood, not a particularly nervous character, is cowed by Harmon's physical presence and moral force.
The villains -- Roger Riderhood and Bradley Headstone -- are convincing enough. The final scene between Headstone and Charlie Hexam is actually done rather well. It's worth remembering that, insofar as Headstone is capable of love at all, it's probably Charlie that he has some love for. As Lizzie rightly says, Headstone "says" he loves her -- and there's a world in that "says". Actually, he DESIRES her -- as what man, given the right circumstances, might not? But there seems nothing more. He doesn't love her, if we're to understand by that his having a deep regard for her interests and her safety and feelings. Heck, he doesn't even have enough of those sorts of feelings to speak to her gently and with tact and respect.
The doll's dressmaker was also mis-cast. She should have been much younger -- she's barely out of childhood in the book, and also has long blonde hair, which she does not here. In the book she is very SHARP in her manner. In this BBC production, she is merely abusive. It's not the same.
And this brings me to what I see as THE major fault with this production: wherever there is a change, or an alteration of Dickens' dialogue, it is always in the direction of a greater coarseness of speech and of feeling. One must remember that whatever the faults of the age, it was also one that produced men like Dickens and Browning, and where if there was much lip-service to religious practice there was also much genuine religious and moral feeling. (Note, in the latter connections that Lizzie PRAYS while carrying out the rescue, as she barely does in the BBC version -- just about.) The instinct of the BBC, unfortunately, seems to be to take a hatchet to 19th-century manners and dialogue and move everything towards a tone reminiscent of its own rather coarse contemporary soap-operas.
Bella suffers much in this connection. Several rather aggressive speeches that aren't in the book are given to her by the BBC. What, in the book, is a proposal of marriage from John Harmon (as Rokesmith) is made here into an interview instigated by her -- a dressing-down delivered, on account of his "watching her". The delicacy and tact of Harmon in this scene are also lost. The BBC make him far more less restrained and thoughtful for her and far more florid and insistent.
And here is Bella reproaching Mr. Boffin in the book:
"I hate you!" cried Bella, turning suddenly upon him, with a stamp of her little foot--"at least, I can't hate you, but I don't like you!" ...
In the film she merely says "I hate you". This is far coarser. In the book she's at one and the same time furious but aware of what she owes for past kindness and affection (not money nor social position, which loom in the book in several unpleasant ways throughout). So there's a kind of see-sawing. It's very fresh and direct, appealing, and also very funny.
It's worth buying and watching this. What's been omitted from the book probably needed to go to make the material of manageable size. I think the choices were intelligent here -- why not, for example, drop the character of the money-lender and make his employee, Mr. Riah, the girls' teacher instead? These sorts of decisions were intelligently made. What I do find hard to forgive is where the BBC has mangled Dickens' dialogue -- has thought it knew better than the great man. But Dickens, after all, knew how 19th-century people thought and spoke and behaved. HE WAS THERE!
There are a few further oddities. For example, a vast army of people is constantly shown sifting the dust heaps, whereas the point is that there is NOTHING in the heaps. If there ever had been anything in the heaps it had been sifted out years ago. This is why Wegg's miscalculations in this connection are so futile. And again, why is a 19th-century Church of England clergyman (Mr. Frank Milvey) shown conducting the marriage service in Latin? This is just bizarre. The Book of Common Prayer, which is in English, had been around since 1662! Our Mutual Friend is set in the 19th century not the Middle Ages.
Finally, the atmosphere is a little too gloomy. To be sure, the book has the attempted murder of John Harmon (which, however, occurs before the action of the book starts). It also has the attempted murder of Eugene Wrayburn by the vile Bradley Headstone: but then this too is unsuccessful.
The book is basically a comedy. it is the story of how a misanthrope's plans for making everyone miserable -- the elder Harmon's -- backfire so that everything instead comes out right. That's a happy outcome on an almost cosmic scale. The elder Harmon even tries to tie his son's fortunes to the marriage to Bella, having seen her misbehaving as a small girl and, presumably, thinking to saddle him with a spoilt and irritating wife. However, she turns out, as it were by a kind of divine joke, to be just the woman John Harmon would have chosen above any had his choice been totally unconstrained -- and worth the deepest and most generous feelings any man would be capable of finding in himself besides. The book is also a comedy in the more familiar sense -- that it is just very funny. I think the "dark" side comes through too much in the adaptation and the comic side not enough.
However, when all's said and done, this adaptation is probably about the best that could be hoped for under current circumstances.