Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
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A really excellent and entertaining production with a fine cast giving full measure to the most memorable characters and scenes. It is difficult to imagine it being bettered.
For all the aforesaid due credit should go to the director (and to the writer, who did a great job in translating some 700 pages of Charles Dickens into a manageable script). The fact, already mentioned by another comment, that the whole American section of the novel is left out, didn't bother me that much. Of course that story is important for the novel and particularly for the personal growth as a man of young Martin, but it's almost a novel within a novel, and since with the adaptation of novels of this scale one always has to make some concessions, it seemed a very sensible choice to comprise the American adventure to some reading of letters and one or two short scenes. To me at least it worked adequately.
But now about the actors, they really deserve the highest credit, it's unbelievable how a whole cast can be of such high standards, it really was a treat to watch and it almost makes me ashamed to pick some of them out! But I have to mention Tom Wilkinson as the hypocritical, greedy en pompous Pecksniff, Wilkinson plays him SO good and convincing, if there's an Oscar for best actor in a miniseries HE should have won that with this one!! Equally good and entertaining was Pete Postlethwaite and I also should mention Elizabeth Spriggs as the scruffy, boozing and ad-libbing Mrs. Gamp, the "nurse" who you wouldn't trust with your worst enemy let alone with a patient! And Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous) and Emma Chambers (Notting Hill) as the Pecksniff-offspring are not only hilarious but also develop their part in a very convincing and in the end touching way. And, on the other, more dark side of the spectrum of Dickens-characters: Keith Allen as the ominous Jonas Chuzzlewit, who's actually blood-chilling in his portrayal of a cruel and relentless son and husband.
And so I could go on, until even such small parts as the spicy young Bailey (Paul Francis - how DO they get such a young kid to play so natural and easy?!). If any, to me there's only one minor flaw in this production: the role of young Martin Chuzzlewit by Ben Walden. I don't know what to make of it. Here's a young actor with a handsome yet rather uncommon face, an awkward way of acting and a curious almost mumbling kind of diction! He seemed a strange choice to play one of the major protagonists in the story. But another comment on this site mentioned of him, that he "casts a spell with his eyes and voice", so maybe that's another way of looking at him.
I give this production a heartfelt 10 out of 10.
The results was bad. He found Americans thievish for not giving him copy-write protection. He found them hypocrites for screaming for freedom, but winking at slavery. He found their cities far less acceptable than the English ones. There was less gentility. There was more rough edged belligerence (especially to the old enemy: England). He hated it. He returned to England and wrote "American Notes". The book roundly attacked the Americans. He was not forgiven for years.
He compounded the act in his next novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit", from 1843 - 1844. In this period, ironically, he was to start writing his small Christmas novels, the first of which ("A Christmas Carol") would become immortal - far more than "Chuzzlewit" actually did. But "Chuzzlewit" is regarded by critics as the best of Dickens comic novels. Yet if one person out of five reads the novel today I'd be surprised.
The novel deals with young Martin Chuzzlewit (Ben Walden), who is apprenticed to his cousin the architect Seth Pecksniff (Tom Wilkinson). Pecksniff is the British equivalent of Moliere's Tartuffe - the arch-hypocrite. As "tartuffel" is the term based on Moliere's character, so is the word "peck-sniff" due to Dickens (in "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man", an angry Mr. Belgoody - Thurston Hall - tells off Larson E. Whipsnade - W.C.Fields - calling him both a tartuffel and a peck-sniff). Pecksniff, pretending to be religious and good, back-stabs his way through the novel, stealing ideas from other architects (including Martin), and pushing his plans to gain control over Old Martin (the grandfather of the hero), a wealthy, retired merchant. Old Martin is played by Paul Schofield. Schofield also plays Old Martin's younger brother Anthony, who has a son Jonas (Keith Allen). Jonas wants to inherit too.
Dickens had demonstrated a grasp at the criminal mind in his handling of Bill Sykes and Fagin in "Oliver Twist". But the burglar and the thief trainer were relatively simple types (although Sykes fury at Nancy and his subsequent self-destruction was unique for British literature at that time). Jonas was a higher class criminal - a murderer who did it for money, not anger. He first destroys Anthony, and then goes after his cousin Montague Tigg, a cousin who is a swindler and a blackmailer. The killing of Tigg (whom Jonas ambushes while he is riding in a gig) is based (somewhat) on the murder of William Weare by John Thurtell in 1823. But there is more than that in Jonas. He is rejected by Pecksniff's daughter Charity (nicknamed Cherry / played by Emma Chambers), who subsequently gives in to his courting - only to discover he pursued her to punish her for initially rejecting him. He is blackmailed by Tigg into investing in a financial swindle, and purposely pulls his father-in-law Pecksniff into the swindle because he hates the man. Dickens made Jonas an in depth study of evil, and he becomes a center of fascination in the plot.
Meanwhile Young Martin goes to America when he breaks with the thieving Pecksniff. He goes with his friend Mark Tapley (Steve Nicholson). They find nothing likable about Americans who are nasty brutes for the most part. They have bought land from the Eden Land Company, only to find it is swamp land. The only good point is that young Martin's personality does change - he becomes less selfish because Mark and he have to depend on each other for survival.
The other comic person in the novel is Sairey Gamp (Elizabeth Spriggs), a drunken midwife who assists Jonas at times. She keeps her acquaintance Betsy Prigg (Joan Sims) informed all the time of her best friend, Mrs "Arris". George Orwell puts it into proper perspective: More details are given about Mrs. Harris than found in any biography about a real person - for only the drunken Mrs. Gamp sees Ms Harris. Betsy finally calls her up short on this claiming, "I don't think there is such a person." Horrified, Mrs. Gamp insists there is. Later, a desperate Jonas requires a woman to watch someone - Mrs. Gamp, almost heroically, pushes for Mrs. Harris.
The series was quite good in what it showed from the novel, but it cut out the entire American section - really the heart of the novel as it deals with the hero. It was found to be too negative an image. Whether it was or not it weakened the production. What is left is quite good, but one wishes the American chapters had been left in as well.
I don't know much about directing, but I know when it stinks, and I know when it's good, and in this case it was excellent. I don't know Pedr James, but for his direction he surely deserves a large share of the credit for this fine production.
The casting of this production was genius, and the performances consistently outstanding. In particular, among the major roles: I couldn't imagine a better Seth Pecksniff than Tom Wilkinson, and he was brilliant as always. He seemed to truly enjoy this role, and oozed imperious Pecksniffian arrogance and false modesty. Paul Scofield as Martin Chuzzlewit was equally wonderful, and so deliciously playful as he came to life and sprang the trap into which he has lured Pecksniff. Pete Postlethwait was marvelous as Tigg Montague/Montague Tigg, a difficult double role of sorts, and so closely resembled in appearance and behaviour the character I imagined as I read the book, that I'm not sure I ever had any image of Tigg in my mind but his. Philip Franks as Tom Pinch nearly steals the show (as does the character in the novel), with a perfect portrayal of that subtle combination of sweet naiveté, chivalrous dignity, and defender of the meek and decent that is Tom Pinch. Elizabeth Spriggs breathed, as it were, liquor-saturated life, into one of the most uniquely Dickensian characters (and a bizarrely dialectic one too) in this story. Marvelous! Keith Allen provided a Jonas Chuzzlewit perhaps even more vile and sinister, and ultimately self-tormented, than the one Dickens himself conceived. Likewise, Emma Chambers' Charity Pecksniff surpassed the original, owning every scene in which she appeared, and simultaneously evoking great empathy for the wrong done to her by her father, and antipathy for her own callous treatment of her sister.
The high quality of writing, direction and performance in this series were further complimented by excellence in all artistic contributions, from set design, costume and make-up (somebody actually read Dickens' descriptions of the characters and studied the original Phiz illustrations! What a novel idea!), and musical score, and by masterful editing, seamless and tight, with not an awkward or wasted frame.
Where I always have issues with Dickens adaptations is in the deletions and alterations that invariably occur, and that apparently must occur. This series stands out to me as one that did not suffer much on this score, even though much of the dialog was shortened, some scenes were melded together, others deleted or compressed, and time-lines were occasionally teased slightly. I hate that generally, but as I've said, I credit the lack of damage done in this process to the skill and hard effort of the writer, David Lodge. I can even forgive the significant re-writing of the climax and epilogue chapters (the omission Westlock's proposal to Ruth, of Charity being left at the alter, and of Tom in the future, at the organ, with Ruth's children) because what was done worked so well and was so fully consistent with the story and characters that it might have been an alternative ending written by Dickens himself. The one major issue I did have along these lines was with the severe watering down, almost to nothing (Mary reading letters from Martin), of young Martin's and Mark's trip to America. This was an important aspect of the novel, to which many chapters were devoted. First, this is necessary to tell the story of the critical change that occurs in young Martin when he is sick - for a month! - in Eden, (being selflessly cared for by Mark) and realizes the folly of his selfish ways. Second, the things that Martin and Mark witness and experience in America provide the reader/viewer with Dickens' own impressions of, and satirical commentary on, pre-civil war America - the slave-owning, ill-mannered, ever-spitting, money-grubbing, agrammatical, thieving, vain, violent, ignorant, swindling, bastard kin of the mother country. It's hysterical! I'm sure it was cut for political correctness, and that is sad.
I believe that this is as close to a perfect production of a Dickens novel as can be done in a six hour time-frame (other than the unfortunate treatment of the American episodes). To truly do full justice to a major Dickens novel, I believe a production must devote one full hour to each of the original 'episodes' as published (three or four chapters were published each month - all of Dickens novels were first published that way). Because Dickens wrote in this episodic way, there is a built in episodic quality to his work, and it is therefore already organized for the corresponding number of film episodes. Martin Chuzzlewit was published in 19 episodes (18 months with a double episode the last month). The best possible adaptation, in my opinion, would follow this episode list.
There are two Martin Chuzzlewits, the first is the young Dickensian hero who is played by Ben Walden and there is grandfather Martin Chuzzlewit who is Paul Scofield who also plays his own brother Anthony Chuzzlewit.
The old Martin is one rich dude who is a doddering and miserly sort of man worried as to who might deserve the riches he's accumulated in life. Scofield has a flock of relatives who are hanging on every word and every breath hoping to find favor with the old guy. For strangely enough he's cut off young Walden and now the rest of them just think his fortune is up for grabs with his dying breath.
The worst of the Chuzzlewit relatives is a cousin named Seth Pecksniff who is an ostentatiously pious and inwardly scheming individual. He worms his way into Scofield's confidence and tries to undermine everyone else so that he and his daughters may profit. He's not above using his daughters for that end either though the daughters played by Julia Sawalha and Emma Chambers. Pecksniff is one of Dickens's most enduring if villainous characters and here he's played with full unctuousness going on all cylinders by Tom Wilkinson.
One of the daughters in fact at Wilkinson's urging marries an equally villainous cousin Jonas Chuzzlewit played by Keith Allen to further the Pecksniff fortunes. He also takes in 'students' to 'learn' architecture and he's got a lovely racket there in passing off promising student's drawings as his own work and living off the money they pay him to allegedly learn. He deals young Walden dirty that way, but most catch on to him including Walden with exception of good hearted Tom Pinch played by Philip Allen. Even he gets wise at one point.
Martin Chuzzlewit was written after Dickens had returned from an American tour and part of the novel has young Martin and a friend going to America to seek a fortune of his own. Dickens was not happy with what he saw in America and the Americans you see here are a merciless bunch of greedy film flam businessmen. That part of the novel got a short shrift in this production.
Considering how Dickens portrayed some of his own countrymen I can't really fault him for writing what he saw in the USA of the 1840s. Just the Chuzzlewit family or most of them are enough to make you gag.
This is a fine BBC productions impeccably cast and giving us a good picture of the United Kingdom of the early Victorian years. Best in the cast is Tom Wilkinson as Pecksniff. The word itself became a noun in the English language for hypocrite just mccarthyism became a synonym for slanderous accusation without proof.
When one of your characters becomes a noun, that's the greatest success you can have.
a very funny TV-series.
Of course there's a lot of scheming and some people get treated very badly. But all the characters are
played in such a manner that you can't help but see them as ridiculous. Tom Wilkinson is marvelous as the pompous Seth Pecksniff and i would like to mention Elizabeth Spriggs who makes her part as Mrs. Gamp unforgettable. If you like a period drama with a good deal of humor this one is for you ! The series lasts 337 minutes. It's a shame that it's still not released on DVD.
Let's hope we don't have to wait too long ! If you like the wit of Jane Austen you will like this series
too ( yes there is a love story in it as well).
For those BBC drama collectors who consider buying the video: This is not as light as the fine Jane Austen film versions, but rather dark and gloomy. In my view this contributes to the film's attraction, and I can recommend "Martin Chuzzlewit" without hesitation.
A piece of advice concerning the videotape: Watch it as soon as you purchased it because there are some tapes on which visual noise appears every now and then. You might perhaps have to exchange it.
Perfectly cast in every role its difficult to single out any one as best. Scofield of course is brilliant but perhaps the real standout is Phillip Franks as Tom Pinch, outwardly an odd looking man who possesses a soul of great compassion and kindness he gives an emotional heart to the entire enterprise. Set in beautifully realized surroundings with impressive attention to detail and directed so that the story never bogs down and focuses too long on any one plot thread this is perfect for any fan of the BBC or classic literature.
Of his friends, Mr. Pecksmith is the most appalling phony. Tom Pinch, weird looking and a little dumb, may be the nicest person in the story. He provides the church with music, gratis, or, as he puts it, "I touch the organ for my own amusement." John Mills is Mr. Chuffey, the addled and devoted servant who is dotty but genuine. Keith Allen is Jason Chuzzlewit, Martin's direct descendant who hovers over the wrinkled old fellow waiting for the last breath to be drawn. Allen is a fine actor. He was a outstanding supercilious serial murderer in the BBC's "The Life and Crimes of William Palmer." Here he's openly vicious and his manners are repugnant. He always seems be sneering and eating with his mouth open, both at the same time.
Anthony Chuzzlewit himself is no prize. "Aggravation flows through his veins, not blood." He loathes the fawners and the greedy and does no more than put up with the few decent people he meets. Mercifully he passes on. Shortly after, his brother Martin shows up for a visit, also Paul Scofield but a more mellow sort of Chuzzlewit, concerned not just about himself and his body sheath but about the happiness of others. That's about as far as I've gotten so far.
Here, as in so many other BBC series, no one can help being impressed by the direction, the acting, and the production values on display. It's a magnificent effort. London never looked quite so crummy and oily, nor its citizens so ragged. The older attempts to put Dickens on celluloid, the ones from Hollywood, were all filmed in sunny California and the cheery settings shed a different light on the proceedings. Lean's two shots at Dickens were more realistic but not as muddy and dark as this series. (Insert favorite vulgar imprecation here), it's depressing!
No wonder one of the younger characters takes off to make his fortune in America -- all that Hollywood sunshine. Actually Dickens himself made a trip to the States and had a chat with Edgar Allan Poe. One can only imagine what they had to talk about. One's demons were psychological, the other's social.
I'm happy when a classic English novel is given a proper miniseries treatment instead of being pruned down to two hours or so. But it generates problems too. There are half a dozen narrative threads that need to be followed. I had a hell of a time with Jason Chuzzlewit's courtship of one or another of the two sinister sisters, for instance. (He switches his pursuit at the last minute.) And at six or so hours of screen time, divided into many episodes, it's sometimes a little hard to keep the threads and the characters straight, to separate the warp from the woof. It must have been even more difficult when the episodes were originally presented on different nights. These multi-charactered plots represent one of the few instances in which recognizable faces, faces of popular actors, help us follow the goings on.
A competent adaptation would have made the most of these themes; this one manages to ignore them both.
Am I the only one who thinks BBC adaptations were better in the 70's and 80's? Yes, they were very stagy and the production value was zilch - but the scripts and acting were second to none. It seems that after Lord Grade's departure there was a conscious decision to dumb things down. The new adaptations are very cinematic and gorgeous to look at, but that's about it. (See for example the old and new versions of "Great Expectations").
First the rich who are supposed to make money by all means, and of course first of all speculation. Madoff certified and a long time before that particular character appeared in finance. Dickens explores the greed of these people but also in some the sound sense of business and fairness, and yet always distorted by selfishness, since selfishness seems to be the main characteristic of man.
Second those who exploit the rich and they are of different types. The beggars or immoral servants, those who drink too much and reside in the petty crime of overbilling their services and taking advantage of an open door. These are luckily counterbalanced by those who are faithful, honest, hard working and ready to help those who deserve that help. Some are easily taken in and exploited again by some social climbing individuals.
Third the social climbers who consider all means are permitted to climb any step, or should I say rung, on the social ladder. They exploit the young, they steal their work and use it under their own names, they flatter the rich when they feel these are weak and gullible.
The best side of Dickens is that everyone will get the payment their deserve. The social climbers will be ruined by their own greed and the bigger greed of some other predators, when it is not plainly killed by one of their victims. The greedy rich will be the prey of all types of predators and those unworthy to be rich because totally overcome by their greed and unable to repent or simply be humble about it will die in the hands of worse characters of lower extract, including their own children. The faithful servants will be rewarded and happy in their hearts. The profiteering servants will be gently discarded.
Two themes are addressed besides these. The position of women in Victorian society. They are pure victims if they do not keep some distance and independence, the victims of men who take wives only to make a profit or to be presentable in society. But at the same time some can get free and keep free as soon as they are of age, provided they want to sever some ties that may hamper them or to refuse some attachments that may prove unwise. Strangely enough in this totally inhumane society women are a ray of sunshine when they believe in love and fight for it.
The second is America. Dickens had a special feud with the USA about his works being pillaged and looted by the American press without paying the royalties his copyright should have produced. Here again the American caper of Martin Chuzzlewit is a visit to a hellish and totally negative hallucination.
But if we look at the weddings in this story we find that ambiguous vision of Dickens: One marriage is a total failure, that of Mercy with Jonas Chuzzlewit; two will be happy, the marriage of Mary with Martin Chuzzlewit and the marriage of Martin's self appointed servant with the housekeeper of the wicked profiteer Mr. Pecksniff. Two will never be fulfilled, that of Tom Pinch who was in love with Mary who chose Martin, and that of Charity whose paramour is taken away to Tasmania. Tom Pinch's sister will probably marry happily with Tom's friend. We are far from the four weddings of the Midsummer Night Dream by Shakespeare. Dickens' world sounds more like a Janus-like picture of a dream that covers up a nightmare.
This particular production by the BBC captures the slow and delicate rhythm of the original with quite a lot of details and side situations that give some depth to the main line of the story. This production also seems to emphasize the depiction of the monstrous and bleakest characters and even Old Martin Chuzzlewit, Martin's own grandfather, is not shown most of the time, and even at the end as a very palatable person. A beautiful piece of 19th century literature that will inspire some of the political minds of that century and the next. When you see such deep social rot the idea of a revolution becomes acceptable or even worth being desired.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
This written, I've seen far better screen adapt ions of a Dickens novel. This was turgid in many respects, regards the writing. The writer must have kept close to Dickens, because it has all his excesses (imo), e.g. the too kind character, the too sinister evil-doer, and of course a gross assault upon coincidence. With Dickens you have to suspend a lot of disbelief, with this movie, somewhat less though.
And you have the fairy-tale ending, which I shall leave as a fairy tale ending, undescribed herein.
The only reason to watch this, is the powerful production design and acting, which is a major "only"! The various British period/costume productions have the touch, and that really includes "Martin Chuzzlewitz". It is a joy to watch. But, the acting. All the people in this production were outstanding; if one stood out, it was Tom Wilkinson as the arch-buffoon/no-goodnik. Though everyone was excellent.
This was certainly worth the view.
I didn't think much of Tom Wilkinson's acting skills before seeing this. But for the first hour or two he steals the show as the greedy nincompoop Pecksniff. He assays this incorrigible dope with quite a varied catalog of idiotic reactions and barely-disguised avarice. Pete Postlethwaite as an unctuous servant is amusing. The actor playing the title character telegraphs that he's the mumbling, no-good sort long before any character explicitly discuss it.
I guess my problem with this is that the narrative and its complications are so commonplace that it never drew me in, and I couldn't tell you what all the mediocre convolutions of the middle do for the story. They didn't engage me, amount to much, or stand out in the Romantic canon. And my appetite for one-dimensional bad guys was long ago filled by Hollywood blockbusters. All that and the usual, insipid, high-Victorian ending in which multiple story lines all reach their moral climax in the same 4 minutes. guh.
"Saffie" from Absolutely Fabulous is one of Pecksniff's daughters and the dimwit villager from Vicar of Dibley is the other one.