Martin Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens' lesser-known, or at least lesser-read, novels. I first read it a few years ago in my campaign to read everything Dickensian I could get my hands on, and despite its reputation, I was surprised to find I enjoyed it very much, and it quickly became one of my favorite of Dickens' early works! Recently, I stumbled across the 1994 BBC miniseries on YouTube, and decided to give it a go too, even though it was nearly six hours long. And in my opinion, it turned out to be one of the best Dickensian adaptations I've seen so far.
For those who haven't read the book, it tells the story of the miserly old gentleman Martin Chuzzlewit. Chuzzlewit, being presumably on the edge of death, is surrounded by sycophantic relatives who are after his money, including his brother Anthony and nephew Jonas Chuzzlewit; his headstrong young grandson Martin Chuzzlewit (whom he has disinherited after finding out the young man has been courting his grandfather's companion, Mary Graham, and who he wrongly thinks is only after his money); and chief above all, the Pecksniff family, consisting of the Misses Pecksniff, Charity and Mercy, and their father, the master hypocrite Seth Pecksniff.
Trustworthy or unselfish people are few and far between, except for the unfailingly loyal Tom Pinch, an employee of Pecksniff who quietly admires Mary from afar and does all in his power to help those in need. After various machinations by the indomitably modest Mr. Pecksniff, with whom the elder Martin Chuzzlewit and Mary lodge for most of the story, young Martin goes off to America to seek his fortune, and other characters meet with misfortune or adventure until everything is resolved in a surprise ending.
I'll admit that I am not as familiar with this book as I am with others like Bleak House or David Copperfield, but I CAN say that I feel this film did a magnificent job of adapting the storyline of the novel. Of course, as with most adaptations of Victorian literature, many storylines were pared down for better flow and to keep the film to six hours.
Notably, the American scenes from the book were largely cut, being relegated to a few scenes and a series of letters read by Martin's devoted Mary Graham. This could pose a problem for some viewers, but from what I understand most readers were unimpressed with Dickens's somewhat overdone American storyline (including me -- I actually found myself skipping over bits to get back to the main storyline when I read the book). And so, except for the lack of character development in young Martin Chuzzlewit and in his relationship with Mark Tapley that these scenes would provide, and some of the good anti-slavery sentiments Dickens expressed in the novel, I actually felt the abridgment of the American plot was suited to this production.
Indeed, the screenplay for this film flowed very well. Scenes were combined at the right place, and some of the best scenes from the book (including Pecksniff's hilarious fall at the beginning of the novel) were included. Also, many Dickensian productions can be a bit difficult to follow (the books are hard enough to follow sometimes!) but this one explained everything in enough detail to allow people who haven't read the novel to follow along well, especially the Tigg pyramid scheme, which I didn't quite understand when I read the book.
The production values were very good (similar to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice); this story is set in the 1830s, and those unusual fashions helped to make the characters seem even more ridiculous than usual. I already had a particular fondness for the BBC miniseries from the early to mid-'90s, because I find that they stay a bit truer to the novels without focusing quite so much on artsy/edgy/bleak effects, which I find to be a problem with more recent BBC adaptations (and Dickens's in particular; i.e. the recent Great Expectations). Plus the blurrier filming techniques of the time give the production a slightly storybook-like quality, which fits this author's style very well!
The acting was brilliant all around; I felt like everyone was correctly cast in the right roles (with a possible slight exception in Ruth, who was a bit plainer than she was in the book, but who also seemed like she could realistically be Tom's sister). The four main characters -- old Martin, Pecksniff, Jonas, and Tom Pinch -- were all portrayed wonderfully. I thought Paul Scofield's Martin Chuzzlewit struck an appropriate balance between miserly and selfish and kind-spirited, making his transition between the two personas during the film very believable. Jonas Chuzzlewit (Keith Allen) was a little rougher than I imagined him when I read the book, but he did a great job of being sinister and callous while being appealing enough to convincingly achieve a match with Merry Pecksniff. Philip Waters made a very sweet and earnest Tom Pinch, after you get over the silly bald-cap wig he wore (although his odd looks did help in understanding why Mary didn't really notice him compared to young Martin).
But Tom Wilkinson stole the show as the slimy Mr. Pecksniff -- I can't imagine a better actor for the role! He was sleazy, as Pecksniff should be, but he also perfectly conveyed the fake "saintly" side of Pecksniff, without giving the feeling of overacting. He also looked like the description from the book, which was an extra bonus. The other actors were great too: The actresses playing Cherry and Merry were quite funny (the scene where Jonas picks Merry over Cherry is so perfect), and I also very much enjoyed the performances of young Martin, Bailey, Montague Tigg, and Chuffey. I literally found myself laughing out loud at many of the moments in this series.
Now no production is without its faults. First of all, I felt like the portrayal of the Pecksniff family was softened a bit compared to the book -- in the novel, they are all quite unpleasant characters, but here Merry and Cherry are never quite obnoxious enough to equal their book counterparts. I think it is due to the screenplay and not Tom Wilkinson's performance, but I also feel like we never got to see Mr. Pecksniff's dark side. In the book, though Pecksniff always appears modest and mild-mannered, Dickens provides some scenes of panic and selfishness that illustrate his true nature, and his lecherous behavior to Mary Graham in the "proposal" scene is stronger than it is in the film. In fact, I think this particular production is weighted a bit toward the Pecksniff scenes (and the dealings of Jonas Chuzzlewit), because young Martin, Tom, and Sairey Gamp don't get nearly as much screentime as they get book chapters. Also, we never quite get an explanation for Tom's loyalty to Pecksniff in the film -- in the book, it explains he is grateful to Pecksniff for offering him employment -- and so it comes across as a bit out of place in the film.
Still, though, my complaints are minor compared to the strengths in this film. If you are a fan of Dickensian adaptations or just period films in general, I definitely recommend this one!