Charles Dickens wrote big, long books, and when his books become movies it's good to make them big and long as well. His many-tendriled, twisty plots can be pruned and compressed with some success -- orphan meets Fagin, Fagin gets orphan, Fagin loses orphan -- but plot isn't what makes Dickens great. There are the huge cast of characters (not always engaged in moving the story forward), the splendid set pieces and the passages of social observation that all go into creating a world you can get lost in.
"Little Dorrit," Dickens' story of money, debt and love in the 1820s -- and whose depiction of a Bernie Madoff-style scandal gives it an eerie currency -- is a very long book. Back in the 1980s, Christine Edzard made a big-screen version that came as two interlocking films, lasting six hours together but telling more or less the same story twice; much was left out. The marvelous new BBC import that begins Sunday night on PBS under the banner of "Masterpiece" lasts eight hours, tells the story straight through and touches most of the novel's many bases, albeit some quite lightly.
The book has been adapted by Andrew Davies, Britain's go-to guy for making miniseries from Victorian classics -- his screenplay credits include last year's "Sense and Sensibility," the 2005 "Bleak House," 1998's "Vanity Fair" and 1995's Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth "Pride and Prejudice." His road through the material emphasizes mystery and suspense over social comment and satire. The Marshalsea debtors prison (where Dickens' own father, like his heroine's, was imprisoned), the red tape-entangled Circumlocution Office, the straitened circumstances of Bleeding Heart Yard, the financial meltdown -- these are secondary elements in what plays primarily as a love story haunted by a crime melodrama (with Andy "Gollum" Serkis as a sociopathic Frenchman).
At 34, Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy in the 2005 feature film "Pride and Prejudice") is too young for Dickens' Clennam, but he communicates sober maturity and makes attractive a man whose goodness is exceeded only by his obtuseness. Claire Foy is strong yet vulnerable as the titular Amy Dorrit, her steadfastness to a less than grateful family, and a less than responsive Clennam, coming across as something better than masochism. And as William Dorrit, the "Father of the Marshalsea," and of Amy, a riveting Tom Courtenay paints a delicate portrait of self-deluded gentility clutching at straws and of a superficially stern parent who is at heart a manipulative (but not unloving) child.
They are joined by a large and wonderful cast that includes Bill Paterson ("Comfort and Joy"), James Fleet ("The Vicar of Dibley"), Eve Myles ("Torchwood"), Freema Agyeman ("Doctor Who") and the always excellent Ron Cook as prison gatekeeper Chivery. Also worth particular mention are Eddie Marsan as rent collector cum detective Pancks and Russell Tovey, dignified and sad as Chivery's lovelorn son.
Not every character is exactly as described on paper; some don't stay around long enough to register and others who have earned our interest just disappear. And the story can be confusing at times. But all in all, this is a dynamic, addictive rendition of a complicated novel that catches the spirit of Dickens' "roaring streets" where "the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."
'Masterpiece Classic: Little Dorrit'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)