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NYT Review 1998 Our Mutual Friend

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 4:19 pm    Post subject: NYT Review 1998 Our Mutual Friend Reply with quote

Vintage Dickens, Dark and Sunny

Published: January 1, 1999

In June 1865, Charles Dickens was traveling to London when his train derailed, leaving his car dangling off a bridge 10 feet above a riverbed. Dickens helped rescue the two women with whom he had been vacationing and whose connection to him he did not want revealed: his lover, the young actress Ellen Ternan, and her accommodating mother. After hours of helping attend to the wreck's victims, some seriously hurt and others dead, he climbed back into his compartment to rescue the manuscript he carried with him, a chapter of his novel in progress, ''Our Mutual Friend.'' As he wrote in a postscript to the book, his characters ''were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt'' by the experience.
For Dickens, the aftershocks were more lingering. Several years later, he still experienced ''sudden vague rushes of terror,'' as he put it. Add to that the deaths of friends and his sometimes precarious health in middle age, and you have a picture of the distressed state of mind in which he wrote that novel, among his darkest, least sentimental and most difficult to bring to the screen.

Around 800 pages long, it includes dozens of characters and two major entangled plots concerning unsuitable romances, savage social hypocrisy and the effect of money on human nature. Yet this unlikely candidate has become a vividly populated, visually beautiful, altogether engaging series on Masterpiece Theater. (The three-part series on PBS begins on Sunday and continues on Monday and Tuesday.) In six leisurely hours, the series pares the novel down significantly yet intelligently, and creates an upstairs-downstairs world so thoroughly realized that viewers may be reluctant to let it go.

''Our Mutual Friend'' was the last novel Dickens completed (he left ''The Mystery of Edwin Drood'' half-finished when he died in 1870, at 5Cool, and the series captures its mature vision. In this shadowy story, the redemption of misguided characters must literally break through a cloud of dust. Dust and the river are the novel's overwhelming images, and episode one begins with a stunning vision of the Thames, a fantasy of moonlight shimmering on midnight blue that evokes Turner and Whistler. In this romantic setting, a man named Gaffer Hexam (David Schofield) trolls for drowned bodies whose pockets he can pick. The scene instantly sets up the discordance of Dickens's world, in which the visible trappings never provide reliable clues to behavior.

With Hexam is his daughter, Lizzie (Keeley Hawes), a young woman repulsed by his actions yet kind to him as only a Dickens heroine can be. She is naturally good-hearted and clear-sighted, yet in this unflinching story, even she is not a piece of spun sugar. Ms. Hawes (seen recently as the well-bred Victorian heroine in ''The Cater Street Hangman'') conveys all of Lizzie's confusion as she makes moral and social choices about her future.

Though it takes a while for the plot to unfold, in true Dickens fashion each scene is intriguing in itself. From the river, the setting moves to a party given by the social climbing Veneerings, and the palette bursts into bright colors. Throughout, Lizzie and the lower classes are shot in dingy brown; the middle and upper classes wear colorful costumes, in crystalline sunshine or by golden candlelight.

Mortimer Lightwood, a lawyer, is entertaining the Veneering party with the tale of an old gent named Harmon, who ''made his money in dust.'' The garbage mounds, or ''dust heaps,'' of Dickens's day were in fact lucrative recycling businesses. From mountains of trash, material was retrieved to make soap and bricks; among the refuse, jewels and other valuables could be scavenged. On screen, the Harmon dust heaps resemble a mining town, with shacks in the shadows of black mounds and workers in rags sifting through dirt.

In the most compelling part of the story, Mortimer's friend Eugene Wrayburn falls in love with Lizzie. Paul McGann (''Withnail & I'') brings immense appeal to Eugene, a handsome man possessed of languorous charm, a drooping mustache and the credo ''so easily bored.'' He is indolent and self-dramatizing yet has inner resources we somehow believe in.

The Harmon fortune eventually passes to his loyal servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. As the Boffins, Peter Vaughan and Pam Ferris make it clear why the plump, good-natured couple are among Dickens's most delightful creations, keeping their common sense as they become accustomed to their fancy clothes. The Boffins generously take Bella into their grand new home. Pretty and strong-minded, she is ingenuously honest in admitting, ''I love money.''

When a man called John Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh) decides to lodge at the Wilfers and work as Mr. Boffin's secretary, Boffin tells Bella: ''We seem to have a mutual friend. Bit of a mystery man, my dear.'' The mystery is cleared up for us, though not for the characters, at the end of Part I. Rokesmith's voice-over and flashback are similar to the novel's interior monologue; as in the book, this is compelling information that comes in the story's one structurally awkward episode.

By eliminating much of Dickens's satirical asides about bourgeois society, the series puts the emphasis on the absorbing, subtly acted romances of Eugene and Lizzie, Rokesmith and Bella. Yet the screen version preserves the core of Dickens's social commentary, for these loves are always set in the context of the caste system that forbids them.

Misguided love leads to some of the most dazzling set pieces. Bradley Headstone (David Morrissey) is a schoolmaster who teaches Lizzie's younger brother; we begin to see just how tightly wound Headstone is when he proposes to Lizzie in a cemetery, explosively blaming her for his obsession with her.

Eugene is equally, though more gently, obsessed. He helps educate Lizzie yet recognizes the unbridgeable social distance between them. They meet in a meadow and later he walks alone, expressing out loud a dilemma any gentleman of his era would find heart wrenching: ''Out of the question to leave her, out of the question to marry her.'' And Rokesmith, a mere secretary, is rebuked by Bella for constantly watching her.

Love or money? A good heart or social status? The characters in ''Our Mutual Friend'' fluctuate wildly between these poles. In this tale, trash becomes money, and money becomes prestige, as the foul dust heap that created the Harmon fortune is turned into the coin of admittance to society. But in Dickens's complex world, poverty does not automatically equal goodness; goodness is a matter of what one does, and how one reacts, to wealth.

There are plenty of eccentric Dickens characters in this series, including Silas Wegg, a one-legged blackmailer, and Jenny Wren, who sews dresses for dolls. There are the deliciously vile Lammles, each marrying the other for money only to find on their wedding day that they are both penniless.

Yet Riah, a good Jew written to compensate for the stereotype of Fagin in ''Oliver Twist,'' has so small a role that his presence here is confusing (he befriends Lizzie). And Dickens's fans may be startled at the absence of Podsnap, the embodiment of small-minded, bourgeois selfishness to whom Dickens gave a chapter and a term, ''Podsnappery.''

Near the end, a dramatic attack leaves Eugene for dead. And though it wouldn't be Dickens without a sunny ending of some sort, there is not a touch of false sentiment in this hugely entertaining, tough-minded tale. After a dismal television season, ''Our Mutual Friend'' starts the new year on a high note that will be hard to match.

Charles Dickens's
'Our Mutual Friend'
PBS, Sunday night at 9
(Channel 13 in New York)

A three-part adaptation of Charles Dickens's last completed novel, to be shown on three consecutive evenings ending Tuesday. A production of BBC America and WGBH/Boston. Screenplay by Sandy Welch and directed by Julian Farino. Catherine Wearing, producer; Phillippa Giles and Michael Wearing, executive producers. Rebecca Eaton, series executive producer; Russell Baker, host.

WITH: Paul McGann (Eugene Wrayburn), Anna Friel (Bella Wilfer), David Morrissey (Bradley Headstone), Steven Mackintosh (John Rokesmith), Keeley Hawes (Lizzie Hexam), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Boffin), Pam Ferris (Mrs. Boffin), Kenneth Cranham (Silas Wegg), Katy Murphy (Jenny Wren), Dominic Mafham (Mortimer Lightwood), Anthony Calf (Alfred Lammle), Doon Mackichan (Sophronia Lammle), Cyril Shaps (Riah), David Schofield (Gaffer Hexam), Kenneth Cranham (Silas Wegg), Katy Murphy (Jenny Wren), Michael Culkin (Mr. Veneering), Rose English (Mrs. Veneering) and Margaret Tyzack (Lady Tippins).

NYTimes liked Paul's Eugene.
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