Honestly, that's the best description I can think of for the two-part Little Dorrit movie released in 1988.
Before I write this review, I almost feel I should apologize to one of our readers for what I'm going to say. I'm sorry, Holly; I know you like this one. But I -- well, for a long time I could hardly make heads or tails of it!
In the first half, there's hardly any narrative momentum at all -- the story strolls and meanders and winds and wanders without seeming to have any clear idea of where it's going. There were times when I was so bored I was tempted to just give up on it. And then sometimes things are madly rushed -- it apparently takes all of five minutes for Arthur to invest and lose his money, and then, once he's in prison, another five minutes for him to develop a raging fever.
One especially harmful consequence of telling the story the way they do here is that we almost never see Arthur and Amy together. It's not just that they experience a long separation, as in the book and in the newer miniseries; it's that they're hardly ever together even in the scenes when they would normally be together. During the first half, it's hard to figure out how they developed a relationship at all. Especially since (1) it seems that Arthur's inattention to Amy is based more on absentmindedness than an on an inferiority complex, and (2) Sarah Pickering as Amy maintains the same facial expression for about 99 percent of this segment.
And for no reason, there's a fatal accident at Doyce & Clennam's (and someone drags in the line "He did the police in different voices" from Our Mutual Friend to describe the deceased!). And THEN Doyce himself dies! Which means that he can't go abroad and make lots of money, and they have to come up with another way to get Arthur out of prison at the end. One of the oddest things about this whole odd production is the way that it follows the original story in slavish detail sometimes, and then at other times plays fast and loose with it. I know all adaptations do this to some extent, but this one doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason for the way it does it.
I have to tell you, my friends -- I've never in my life appreciated Andrew Davies as much as I do now. I know I've had my quibbles with him, and probably always will, but at least the man knows how to adapt a story!
Here's another strange thing about the slavish detail: The way they work it in, it doesn't make any sense. They'll have scenes that are taken word-for-word from the book, and yet they're presented without any background or transition from previous scenes, and sometimes the camera just wanders away from the people talking and starts filming something or someone else, so you have no context for the scenes and not even much focus on them. I have no idea how someone who'd never read the book could have followed this. Or why they'd want to follow it. I mean, if even the cameraman can't be bothered to maintain interest in the proceedings . . .
And did I mention that there's no Rigaud/Blandois at all?
To top it all off, the score is made up of snippets from operas by Verdi. Because when you think Dickens, you think . . . Italian opera . . . I guess? All I know is, much of it feels obtrusive and out of place. When Pet was gently telling Clennam of her engagement in the garden, and the orchestra suddenly struck in with a loud stabbing Verdi chord, I almost fell off the bed laughing. So, not what you would call effective.
Now, the second half is much better done, and could pretty much stand alone as a three-hour movie. Amy's part of the story is a much more coherent narrative, and Pickering finally gets a chance to shine -- more or less. Although she still doesn't change expression much, she manages to convey a great deal even in her stillness and quietness. There are moments when she seems irritatingly passive, but there are more times when we see her strength, goodness, and astute powers of observation. And in this half, the moments when the camera gets busy watching someone else work better, as they emphasize how Amy is always getting shoved aside and overlooked.
(A definite advantage to Pickering's reserved performance is that when, out of the blue, she finally kisses Arthur on the lips, it's a real "WHOA! You GO girl!" moment. As a matter of fact, I may have actually said that out loud. . . . )
Among the strengths of the production are the sets, which are carefully and realistically done and, especially in the Marshalsea, convey a real sense of claustrophobia. But the thing that really makes this film worth watching, if you've got the fortitude to plow through all six hours, is that many of the performances are excellent. Derek Jacobi plays Arthur with an air of gentle bewilderment that's very endearing. Alec Guinness, as one might expect, is a magnificent Mr. Dorrit. Joan Greenwood as Mrs. Clennam is formidable. Eleanor Bron, with a look of Elizabeth Taylor about her, is a deliciously languid Mrs. Merdle. Roshan Seth as Pancks is suitably sprightly (and he has hair!). Sophie Ward's Pet is far less ditzy than she was in the miniseries, which is a relief.
So there are a lot of good things here, but they aren't enough to make it all gel into a coherent whole, in my opinion. Which makes it amazing to me that the film was critically acclaimed and got an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay! I guess we can chalk that one up to Dickens himself rather than writer/director Christine Edzard, because though she clearly tried hard, I can't say I think she served the story all that well. Attention to detail is a great thing, but flow and comprehensibility are essential too.
(And now, Holly, if you'd like to write a rebuttal and prove that I'm out to lunch, I'm willing to listen. It's only fair after I've spent all this time whaling away on it!)