Allan Hunter meets Christine Edzard. whose film of Dickens‘ Little Dorritshows how divided Victorian Britain. criticised in the novel. has parallels today.
David Lean once hailed Charles Dickens as ‘the perfect screenwriter'. Although writing over halfa century before the development ofdrama on film. Dickens‘ work displays all the essential ingredients of the best in popular cinema; the ability to tell stories in words and pictures. combining vivid characterisation and incident with satisfactorily resolved narratives that remain accessible to all and are capable of touching the basic human emotions. In essence. he could be described as a literary historical equivalent of Steven Spielberg.
Always popular with the filmmakers. then. there are more than seventy adaptations of Dickens'
Sophie Ward as Minnie Meagles work strewn across the history of the screen from the silent days to the present. However. since the sing-along success of ()liver.’ twenty years ago. those with an eye for the big screen have relegated Dickens to the category ofsaccharine family entertainment. only to be recounted with a song and a dance. The task of properly teasing out the complexity of his novels has apparently become the province ofthe BBC teatime serial. American television or the RSC. Now. however. Christine Edzard has made magnificent amends for this large-screen neglect. with the staggering accomplishment of a lovingly crafted. two film.
Max Wall as Flintwinch
six-hour screen translation of Little Dorrit.
Written in the 1850s. Little Dorrit is one of Dickens‘ richest achievements. providing a densely packed collage of his contemporary England. with its avaricious stock market speculators. slum landlords. debtors‘ jails. social parasites and dubious espousal of high moral values. The story revolves around the slowly realised love between Arthur (.‘lennam and Amy Dorrit. (‘lennam is a middle-aged man who returns to England after twenty years at work in the family business in China. A lonely. vulnerable and well-meaning figure he is touched by the plight of Amy. a young seamstress employed by his forbidding mother. Attemptingto engineer the release of Amy and her family from their long-term incarceration in the Marshalsea debtor‘s prison. he encounters government inertia. bureaucratic inefficiency and all the social and political evils of the day. Somehow. however. love does find a way.
The innumerable parallels between the original days of Victorian values and the similar hypocrisies of their currently unfolding sequel in Thatcher's Britain are striking. This is a work of timeless and universal truths about the iniquities ofclass. the greed of mankind. the blinkers ofdogmatic belief and the inefficiency of
politicians and supposedly civil public servants. These issues and this particular quality of the book perhaps explains why Edzard has committed four years ofher life in bringing the text to the screen. ‘Well. I love the book and I love the richness and the texture and it does say so many things that are still relevant. The characters may appear grotesque or eccentric but if you delve into them there is a reality to them and a humanity that is eternal and that was what we were going for. Dickens was a journalist; someone taking notes from real life. and what was so terribly exciting was trying to convey that feeling of a massive mosaic of observations from real life.‘
Edzard began her professional
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Alec Guinness as William Dortit career in opera design in Europe and gradually moved towards the film world. Working as an assistant designer on the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet. she met and married the film’s associate producer Richard Goodwin and it is their company. Sands Films. that is responsible for Little Dorrit. For the past twelve years their base has been a self-sufficient studio complex amongst the once derelict warehouses ofGrice‘s Wharfin South East London‘s Rotherhithe. and their approach to film is not to view it as some soulless industrial process but to try and recreate the family feeling ofa cottage industry
that must have prevailed among the early celluloid pioneers.
Displaying a painstaking attention to detail. Edzard has thoroughly researched the 1840s and employed a number ofpermanent staff to create and handmake authentic replicas of the period clothes. The biggest challenge ofall however was in restructuring Dickens‘ lengthy bestseller for the dictates of the screen. ‘There was a version of Little Dorrit made in the 1920s. which has completely vanished although the original Little Dorrit. who is now a very old lady. is coming to see our film at the end of the month. There was a German version in the l930s
6 The List 22 Jan — 4 Feb 1988