Cinema: What The Dickens!

Three films based on the master's novels crowd into theaters

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The animation (under George Scribner's direction) forfeits the usual Disney gloss in favor of a flatter, grittier palette in the Ralph Bakshi style, as befits the characters. Oliver the orphan kitten is your basic adorable pussycat, but the dogs in the gang that adopts him all have raffish personalities that speak as distinctively in song as in dialogue. Dodger is a city-wise mutt who, in Billy Joel's voice, sings an anthem to urban resilience: "I may not have a dime,/ But I got street savoir faire!" And in the Fifth Avenue home of the little girl who adopts Oliver dwells a French poodle named Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler). This pooch is one pampered prima donna. "Don't ask a mutt to strut like a show girl," she warbles in a chanteuse whisper that bursts into Ethel Merman brass. "No, girl, you need a pro." And from the pros who made Oliver comes the snazziest Disney cartoon since Walt died in 1966.

Dickens might have been Disney, or even one of the Saturday Night crew, but could he ever be Chekhov? Christine Edzard, who adapted and directed Little Dorrit, must think so. The novel is stuffed with incident -- with the histories of five families linked by love, greed and injustice -- but in this two-part, six-hour film, so little happens that most of the plot in Part 1 can later be reprised from another point of view. These Dickens people live in the spaces between heartbeats; grandfather clocks tick the measure of their bleak lives. Minor characters sit in corners, their postures and spirits broken; to everyone else they are just furniture without a function. The film looks tattered as well, like a Vermeer hung too long on a gentleman's drawing-room wall. It is as if the book's pages had been photographed, lovingly but out of focus.

"Throw a little polish into your demeanor," says old William Dorrit (Alec Guinness), and Edzard could take that advice to heart. Her film rarely has even the septuagenarian skip that Guinness puts into his step as he walks through Marshalsea debtors' prison with a sad child's hand in his. The child is William's daughter Amy (Sarah Pickering) -- Little Dorrit -- who lives with him in Marshalsea and carries herself with the fated passivity of a heroine from a Robert Bresson film. She does her domestic duty; she waits for death's embrace. First she cares for the aged William, then for sad, dear Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), another child-father in need of redemptive nursing. All three are nature's noble cripples, made for each other. And around them swirl -- or, here, meander -- a gallery of Dickens eccentrics, cogs in the relentless machinery of the industrial age.

As soon as the moviegoer realizes that this Dorrit is to be no sumptuous, briskly rendered Masterpiece Theater, he can pick through it for some great performances. Roshan Seth is splendid as Mr. Pancks, a rent collector with an appetite for humiliation and revenge. Amelda Brown is an acute Fanny Dorrit, the elder sister desperate to crash a society that does not deserve her. Eleanor Bron hardly need arch a plucked eyebrow to suggest Mrs. Merdle's steely hauteur; Joan Greenwood hardly need move to inhabit the cold carcass of Mrs. Clennam. Jacobi locates eloquence in every sigh, and Pickering finally reveals a gosling beauty, even as Dorrit, through sheer persistence of style, finally locks the viewer into its stern rhythm.

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