TV Series Review: Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
Martin Chuzzlewit is a six-part, BBC miniseries, an adaptation of the lesser-known Dickens novel of the same name. There’s not a whole lot of romance in this satirical story. This is a cutting study and portrayal of greed and avarice and what nurturing this vice does to people.
Essentially, it’s a hard-hitting societal criticism about some rather awful people. Awful characters rather supremely acted by some top-notch talent.
Paul Scofield, Tom Wilkinson, Pete Postlethwaite, Julia Sawalha, Emma Chambers, Elizabeth Spriggs, Philip Franks, Ben Walden – yes, there are many award-winning and talented actors and actresses in Martin Chuzzlewit. Even Sir John Mills puts in a rather memorable comic cameo.
So, it’s a very fine ensemble cast, even if the story lacks some romance (-:
Meet Seth Pecksniff
While the novel is named Martin Chuzzelwit, Martin Chuzzlewits (senior and junior, there are two them) are rather secondary players in this story. Because the main focus in Martin Chuzzlewit is Seth Pecksniff (Wilkinson), a social climbing, sycophantic architect with many aspirations.
This is a horrid chameleon of a man, always trying to sneakily slither and slime his way into advantageous positions. He is really something else, and you find yourself cringingly laughing at his antics. Wilkinson is masterful in his depiction.
The object of Seth Pecksniff’s flattering and aspirational affections is Martin Chuzzlewit, Sr. (Scofield). Well, it started with the younger Chuzzlewit (Walden), but he quickly changed sides when he calculated that it would be to his advantage to sidle up to Chuzzlewit, Sr. instead.
The whole point of this story is that everyone is trying to sidle up to Martin Chuzzlewit, Sr. He’s the Ebeneezer-type in this tale. Greed has made him very rich, very lonely, very manipulative, very miserly.
And his poorer relations all swarm around him, hoping to get a piece of the pie. Pecksniff is one of those relations, although a bit further removed than a grandson and brother and nephew and on it goes. One of the family members has the name of Chevy Slyme, which pretty much sums up the nature of these greedy relations.
I’m not going to go into the whole plot here. But suffice it to say – this is Dickens – we’ve got some unrequited love and murder and violence and manipulations aplenty. Yes, many a twist and turn in this tale.
The most sympathetic character in the whole show – well, a few do redeem themselves eventually – is the longsuffering, good-to-the-bone Tom Pinch (Franks). Tom is the very put-upon apprentice/servant to Pecksniff, who is so good and true and naïve and hard-working. A real gem of a human being, who is perennially overlooked and unlucky in love, because he is so self-effacing and uncomely. You’ll be aching for him.
Thoughtful and Thought-Provoking
One of the undercurrents in this series is violence against women. Pecksniff’s two daughters, Charity (Chambers) and Mercy (Sawalha), are snobbish chits. They have indeed been raised by their father. And their father – in his selfish interests – sees no issue in marrying one of them off to a Chuzzlewit relation, one that might improve his lot. It’s a tactical marriage, and the silly Mercy goes along with it.
Sawalha is in fine pre-Lydia Bennet form here – all giggles and nonsense. But her post-marriage portrayal is heartbreaking. Even silly, snobbish chits don’t deserve that. She grows up fast. And tellingly enough, it is Martin Chuzzlewit, Sr., who attempts to warn her about this obviously cruel nephew of his; cruelty that must be apparent to Pecksniff himself, but to which he decides to turn a blind eye because of his own greed.
All in all, Martin Chuzzlewit is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tale about greed. About the heights and the depths people will go to have and have some more and some more. As a social commentary, it is critical of this capitalist system in which we find ourselves, of banks and investment schemes, of entitlements and apparent birthrights. Yeah, it’s a heavy hitter here. There’s much humor and much odiousness. And it is so very finely acted.
Content Note: Must be around a PG for thematic elements.
Where to Watch: DVD.
Photo Credit: BBC.