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"OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens' novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, "Oliver Twist", while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them.

After years of avoiding Dickens' novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND", Sandy Welch's 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots - major and minor - and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London's rubbish.

"OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter's will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London's rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father's money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon's body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon's employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon's "death".

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins' social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer's character.

*The man who found Harmon's "body" is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering "Harmon".

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon's body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam's daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie's younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon's will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, "MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA". But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" is that I only enjoyed one major subplot - which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey's occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone's feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes' inability to express Lizzie's true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann's portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon's fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg's attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle's attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon's gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh's subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries' visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O'Neil's Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND". Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens' tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist' best. "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND" has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

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