Six hours viewing time, in four hefty chunks, begins to tackle Charles Dickens's complex storylines. Based on his final novel, the production team at the BBC has surpassed itself.

What begins as a murder mystery and progresses through the anguish of unrequited love and the social disruption of sudden wealth ends with retribution and hope.

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The cast of characters is filled with the good, the bad and the ugly, except this time money has beneficial attributes and an infatuation with a beautiful woman has terrible consequences.

The river Thames and those who ply her trade, especially of drowned bodies, initiates a drama that touches the lives of rich and poor alike.

Dickens takes liberties. The heir to a fortune swaps identity with a fellow passenger on his voyage home from abroad to claim, not only wealth and property, but also a girl especially chosen to be his bride. The fake heir drowns and the real one takes up the position of secretary to the good working people, who have come into the inheritance.

A cynical barrister, who can barely be bothered to appear at chambers and finds society too grotesque to be entertaining, falls under the spell of the daughter of the man who fished the fake heir out of the Thames and, subsequently, became chief suspect to his murder. This girl is one of Dickens's idealised heroines and the object of another man's diseased passion.

These are but two strands of a broader tapestry, covering society's arrogant contempt of the nouveau riche, while sponging off it, in addition to the brutal realities of low class life, before a Welfare State was even dreamed of.

Scenes are lit almost entirely by candles. The mood is reflected off the river, like a grey moon over dark water. Emotions are so intense they explode into violence, or so sweet they cause pain too deep to heal.

Many of the performances outshine expectation, particularly those of Kenneth Cranham, David Bradley, David Morrissey, Timothy Spall, Peter Vaughan, Keeley Hawes and Paul McGann. If there remains any doubt about a renaissance in British cinema, Julian Farino's Victorian saga is an example of what can be done with a masterwork.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2001
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BBC Adaptation of Charles Dickens classic.
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Director: Julian Farino

Writer: Sandy Welch, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Starring: Paul McGann, Keeley Hawes, Anna Friel, Steven Mackintosh, Peter Vaughan, Pam Ferris, David Morrissey, Timothy Spall, Kenneth Cranham, David Bradley

Year: 1998

Runtime: 350 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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