I was confused throughout most of this series, regarding the characters and their relationships to one another, so much so that I wonder if I watched the episodes in their proper order. All, however, was resolves in Episode Four. I made certain I watched it last.
Like the other BBC renditions of Dickens, it's obviously a classy production. In a way, the narrative threads -- which perplexed me -- are just the icing on the cake anyway, because the production values here are so high and so persuasively accurate that it's like watching a five-hour ethnography of London in the 1840s. I've never seen such filth. All of Dickens' works involve the poor, but these "boat people" are at the very bottom of the scale.
They live in and around the mud on the banks of the Thames and they cart away cinders from heaps of ashes to be sold for making bricks. And I always thought I had it bad. Timothy Spall, as the humble but good Mr. Venus, hauls garbage in its various configurations from the river to refurbish and resell them -- cast-off clothing, discarded umbrellas, carcasses of animals and humans, bits of metal, glass jars, dolls. He's managed to accumulate enough human bones -- a femur here, a calcaneus there -- to assemble an almost complete human skeleton, of which he is justly proud. It engenders one of those choice bits of Dickensian prose. Mr. Venus is associating with a respectable woman and he's hopeful that, if they are ever married, his profession won't lead to "her being regarded in a bony light." I love it when they say things like that. Elsewhere, Dickens has a character exclaim: "Oh, joy! What a reversal of desolation!" No wonder W. C. Fields was so convincing as Mr. Micawber.
Dickens clearly means to direct our attention to the plight of the poor. These are people who, when they grow old and die, crawl off under a bush and expire alone like worn-out animals.
Yet Dickens doesn't romanticize his disenfranchised. There is at least as much evil among them as there is among the rich. And this is a typical story for him -- hidden wills, marriage above or below one's station, intrigues to lay hands on an inheritance, blackmail, that sort of thing. But Dickens was no revolutionary -- not, at least, judging from those of his works that I'm familiar with. Everything can be solved by truth, charity, and justice. Well, sometimes.
Being a scavenger in the rubbish heaps or the cholera-ridden cloaca that was the Thames was in fact a dangerous business. Disease was rampant, especially among children, at the time. That was all before Britain's National Health Care, of course. It's curious that, as I write this, there is such a hateful outcry against even the slightest form of improvement in health care in the United States. I'm compelled to believe that there are Americans of some number who wouldn't object to a return to the health delivery system of Dickensian London. If poor people had any ambition they wouldn't get ill in the first place. Social Darwinism redux. Herbert Spencer is applauding from beyond the grave. Scrooge would have approved too.
All the performances are at least adequate and some are better than that. Anna Friel as Bella is outstanding. She's not afraid to talk and eat at the same time. The Make Up Department should get a medal. What overblown blowziness! The teeth of the poor are especially well done. They seem to hang in the air by themselves as things do in especially amorphous nightmares.
But I think I may have worn out my enthusiasm for the Dickens series. Maybe it was my own fault. Maybe I DID mix up the episodes. But it seemed a little tiresome -- long, mostly sad, and complicated. Made me want to watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon or eat some sherbet or something to clean my palate. But they're so well executed that I'm sure I'll get back to them after a year or two in a straight jacket so I don't slit my wrists.
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