Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Considering that Dickens’ 200th birthday is in 2012, I figured it’d be a good time to post some reviews of his book-to-screen movie adaptations that were brought to life by BBC. As someone who thinks Charles Dickens is a great storyteller and a girl who loves all things that might be related to costume dramas, seeing this displaced movie seemed like a good idea. After much research and reading of reviews, I was thrilled to find Martin Chuzzlewit. While this story is less-intelligent than some of Dickens’ other works, it is still a complex enjoyable story that leaves you guessing until the end.

Martin Chuzzlewit (Paul Scofield) is a wealthy man with an old well-known family name. Right now, he is travelling with his companion and nurse Mary Graham (Pauline Turner). Since Mr. Chuzzlewit isn’t in the best health he has decided to get his will in order, leaving his fortune to his beloved grandson and namesake Martin (Ben Waden). After learning that Martin has fallen in love with Mary, Mr. Chuzzlewit disinherits him and forbids a match between the two. In families, news travels fast and when Mr. Chuzzlewit’s dozens of relatives learn that his sole heir has been disinherited they become greedy with the prospect of becoming his new heir. The scheming hypocritical Seth Pecksniff (Tom Willkinson) – a cousin to the elder Chuzzlewit is the most determined relative to get named in the will. With the assistance of his two daughters – the self-centered Mercy (Julia Sawalha) and dull-witted Charity (Emma Chambers), Pecksniff devices a plan to “protect” Mr. Chuzzlewit from his evil grandson.

Once young Martin comes to terms that his grandfather is not going to change his mind, he decides to leave for America to make his fortune along with an acquaintance and travelling companion Mark Tapley (Steve Nicolson). Without means to marry the good-hearted Mary, Martin makes plans to send for her once he has made his fortune and is established. Fearing that his grandfather might discover his correspondence with Mary, he sends his letters in care of his friend Tom Pinch (Phillip Franks). Also playing a crucial role in the Chuzzlewit family search for a fortune is Jonas Chuzzlewit (Keith Allen). As nephew to old Mr. Chuzzlewit, Jonas is already party to his own fortune being the sole heir and only son of Anthony Chuzzlewit (also played by Paul Schofield), Martin’s brother. Still a greedy, obnoxious man, he will stop at nothing to gain what he wants.

Period films from the BBC that predate the middle 90’s are… well, dated. They are not usually up to standards with what comes from the Brits nowadays. Somehow though, this particular BBC Classic rises above the barrier just enough that it is still an entertaining piece of film work. Producers and casting agents assembled a grand lot of talent for this despite its lesser known status. Paul Scofield was just marvelous; his performance leaves you guessing the entire time if he really is just a generous man who wants to do right by his grandson or if he’s one of the villains. Then we come to Julia Sawalha’s performance. Who doesn’t recognize that name? As Mercy, she plays a much better, more suited role than she did in Pride and Prejudice (Lydia). I felt that she gave a more mature emotional performance that served the actress well (even though Pride and Prejudice was post Martin Chuzzlewit, ironic, no?). At the beginning of the story she’s a foolish, silly girl who thinks she has the world at her feet, by the end, because of unfortunate circumstances, she’s learned how cruel the world and the people in it can be. One of my favorite secondary characters is Mark Tapley; a cheerful man who is determined not to let the world get him down. Mark’s common sense and peaceful manner saves Martin one too many times from foolishness. True to form from Dickens’ there is an array of secondary characters. Some of whom are at the forefront, others are lurking in the shadows requiring us to think about their motives and question whether they are a hero or villain, which is something all the actors do a stellar job keeping you in suspense of. But as usual, Dickens’ ties everything together in the end so that no or little doubt is left lingering in his audiences mind.

Because of its confusing plot and many characters I don’t think this would hold the interest of children under the age of twelve. However if you are thinking of introducing the children in your family to Charles Dickens’, my pick would definitely lean more towards a production such as this.  As it would happen, this is the one book-to-screen adaption that is “different” from Dickens’ other works; it just isn’t as thought-provoking  (the message is one of recognizing selfishness in oneself) or as intricate – in fact it is rather comical at times. While I still found it to be a worthwhile production, it is not my favorite, especially after having seen 2006’s Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Both of which are superior adaptations – mainly because they have the benefit of newer filmmaking technology and some great talent backing it. Even still, I found Martin Chuzzlewit not as easy of a story to be pulled into. Sure, there is still murder and mystery that become tangled twists, but the first half was a little more of a comedy than the standard by which we are used to seeing of Dickens (definitely a "lighter" approach is taken). The other minor complaint I have is the make-up job on some of the characters. It wasn’t nearly as well done as most of the other BBC productions. (In particular the make-up on Philip Franks: it was terribly obvious what they were trying to hide. Maybe it was intentional, maybe not, but whatever, it was just… hideous.) Normally this author’s works offer so many characters and weaving subplots, we do not know where to fixate the focus – an aspect that can be overwhelming at times, but it is a characteristic that is uniquely Charles Dickens. If you haven’t seen any of this author’s works before, be prepared to want to watch this a second or maybe even third time through before you are really able to comprehend everything that is happening. But, a Dickens’ masterpiece is well worth it.

(Content merits a PG rating. Minor implications of spousal abuse are present. One character is murdered and there is much talk about poisoning a person.)


  1. I am a big Dickens fan, no lie, too. And this tale I found to be very enjoyable. You're right, there are a heck of a lot of characters and the names can get a little confusing to follow all storylines at times but it does rap things up so well in the end. I just love the end scene when they all storm in on that nasty Jonas. Love Julia's character too how she undergoes such a huge change. I named a parakeet I had growing up after Mr Chuffy. Heehee Loved him :)

    Good long movie, time well spent :)


  2. Dickens is a superior story-teller, Jeanine! There is no question about it.

    I liked this one a lot, too. It seems like it's one of Dickens more obscure novels/movies, but in comparison to Bleak House or some of his other works, it is not hard to figure out why. Don't you think that confusing plots and/or characters is kind of Dickens signature though? It sure seems that way to me. Each of his stories include a multitude of characters that are each... interesting.

    Anyway, as you say, this is an excellent production. =)

    (Ha! That is a funny story about your parakeet - excellent name for it. ;D)

  3. I'll have to check this one out! My dad and I share a mania for Dickens, so this might be the next Jackson Family Costume Drama Night... haha.

    Love the new format by the way!

  4. This one is really entertaining, AnnaKate. (My dad likes anything Dickens, too.) It is a bit "different" but still typical Dickens. Enjoy if/when you see it. =)

    Thanks for your thoughts on the layout - I've had some fun adapting it and adding in color (it was basically all gray before!).


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