Writer Andrew Davies applied his quill pen to adapting a number of Jane Austen novels before tackling Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” and he’s back with another sprawling, impeccably cast PBS miniseries, “Little Dorrit.” This Dickens tale includes mystery, romance and dramatically shifting financial fortunes — and at eight hours spread across five nights, there are ample portions of everything. Slow going at first and rushed near the end, it’s nevertheless an absorbing piece of work, reminding us that there are certain things the Brits simply do better.
Although PBS is scheduling “Little Dorrit” across five successive Sundays, as with “Bleak House,” the story is actually told in half-hour chapters. This results in a roller-coaster approach that builds toward those episodic breaks, which requires a bit of getting used to.
Characteristic of Dickens, the story exposes harsh class distinctions in the early 19th century, as well as shadowy financial doings, blackmail and even a big heartless bureaucracy, the Circumlocution Office, which all makes the author seem a little bit like Nostradamus.
Driving the action is Arthur Clennam (“Frost/Nixon’s” Matthew Macfadyen), who returns from several years abroad with a vague deathbed admonition from his father to “Put it right.” Arthur’s imperious mother (the wonderful Judy Parfitt, in a character much like the one she played in “Dolores Claiborne”), begins to employ a poor seamstress, Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy), who has grown up in debtor’s prison, where her addled father William (Tom Courtenay) has been held for more than 20 years.
Clearly, Mrs. Clennam is hiding secrets of her family’s past, and Arthur is determined to uncover them — fearing that his family is somehow responsible for the Dorrits’ misfortune.
Unfortunately, the saintly, doe-eyed Amy is a true pearl among swine, a different breed than her dad or her money-grubbing sister (Emma Pierson). Along the way, after winning Amy’s heart with his kindness toward the Dorrits, Arthur falls in love with another — one of several impediments that keep the two apart. The teeming cast also includes Andy Serkis under a Cyrano nose as Rigaud, a murderous French blackmailer with a Pepe Le Pew accent; and Alun Armstrong as Mrs. Clennam’s beady-eyed attendant.
Perhaps the biggest wrinkle from Davies — who has a reputation for tarting up Victorian material — involves the mysterious Miss Wade (Maxine Peake), whose plotting with Rigaud also includes several scenes that strongly imply she’s a lesbian.
Davies could have easily shed (or at least pared down) a few of these subplots without seriously diminishing the story’s grandeur, and after the lengthy windup, the last hour races through tying up the assorted loose ends. Even so, there’s so much gaudy talent on display here that those with an appetite for it won’t be able to get enough, and “Little Dorrit” gives them everything they could want in a big, gloriously messy package.