Our Mutual Friend is the 1998 miniseries created by BBC and based off Charles Dickens’ last completed novel. The film, with a screenplay written by Sandy Welch (North and South, Emma, Jane Eyre), runs for approximately 351 minutes, in four episodes. Some of the familiar faces in this adaption are Keeley Hawes (Cynthia, Wives and Daughters) and David Morrissey (Colonel Brandon, Sense and Sensibility).
Dickens’ last novel, and one of his most complex and unique plots, finds its beginnings with a man named Harmon. Harmon was a hard, greedy, and unfeeling man who gained a great fortune in dust mounds. Upon his death, his inheritance is to go to his son John, who has been living abroad for most of his life, on the condition that he marries a woman whom he has never met—one Bella Wilfer. However, at the time that young John Harmon was to return to claim his fortune and his bride, he is reported drowned.
At this unexpected turn of events, the Harmon fortune goes to Mr. Harmon’s most trusted servants, Mr. and Mrs. Nicodemus Boffin, while various people become suspect for the murder of the drowned man. Happy-go-lucky, endearing, and unspoiled Mr. and Mrs. Boffin decide to “go in for fashion” and take in John Harmon’s intended bride, beautiful but somewhat mercenary Bella, to help soften the injury at being willed “like a dozen spoons” and at losing a prospective fortune. Joining the Boffins to act as a secretary is a mysterious man called John Rokesmith, who appears to have no back history but who studies Bella quietly and faithfully.
At the same time, a carefree, idle young laywer named Eugene Wrayburn makes attempts to clear Gaffer Hexam, the man who recovered the body of John Harmon, of the suspicion of having done the murderous deed. Not only does he wish to clear Gaffer, but he also finds himself attracted to the man’s modest and gentle daughter Lizzie. He is not the only man attracted to Lizzie’s beauty and sweet temperament; the girl also finds herself followed by her brother’s somewhat psychotic schoolmaster.
In his masterful way, Dickens weaves together a tale so complex and so compelling, and at the same time packed with rich spiritual truths, and all of it finding its center in the “mutual friend” of the title. Six hours of viewing will sweep you up into a tale consisting of sweet romance, murder mystery, stalkers, the painted lives of high society and the stark realities of riverside London, wealth and poverty, disputed wills, midnight chases, and a vast array of unique characters (some totally loveable and some absolutely detestable).
Our Mutual Friend may be one of the most accurate of the Dickens films I’ve watched. Of course, as the book is very lengthy, some very minor subplots have been omitted (for instance, Georgiana and Mr. Fledgeby’s) and some scenes left out or condensed, but the order of events and the dialogue are, in my opinion, profoundly similar to the book. Most of the lines come straight from Dickens’ own pen, and very little (or nothing) is added by the screenwriter. As I read in another review, it’s like reading Dickens “on-the-go”. There are a few scenes that I wish the filmmakers had not left out—for instance, the movie leaves it very unclear as to whether Gaffer Hexam was ever cleared of suspicion or not (the chapter in which that issue is addressed I found most intriguing when I read it, and wish the filmmakers had not omitted it, though I suppose they did so because of the time limit). Overall, however, the story development and the characters are very true to the book. It even begins and ends the exact same way as the book, with the exact same scenes.
Sadly, one can barely find a movie anymore that does not contain at least one or two questionable elements. There is some brief nudity in Episode 4, in which a character Bradley Headstone bathes in the river, which is easy to predict and fast-forward, and isn’t essential to understanding the plot. Language is hardly an issue in this miniseries—there are a very few exclamations of the Lord’s name; I can remember one use of “the devil” and one “d**n” (but then, I have not watched it with the subtitles—my apologies if I have missed anything!) There is one violent scene at the end of episode 3; one character attacks another, beats him up, and throws him in the river.
Besides that, there are a few images that may be disturbing to some viewers (myself included). As one of the recurring themes throughout the miniseries is the river, a number of characters drown (or almost drown) and their bodies are recovered, some looking disturbingly…decaying. These camera shots are easy to predict and to shut one’s eyes to if desired.
Ladies’ gowns in some of the “society” scenes reflect the styles of the day, which translates rather too low in the front and rather too far down off the shoulders.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
I wonder whether Charles Dickens realized the fascinating Christian aspects of his stories. Not only does Our Mutual Friend commentate on the social ills of the day, but it also portrays a variety of Biblical truths that leap right off the page (or screen) into the very lives of the readers/viewers.
My favorite spiritual “allegory”, so to speak, would be Bella’s storyline. I cannot go into detail without giving away spoilers, but I will say that her journey from selfishness, worldliness, and love for money to humility, trustfulness, and true love reflect the work I long to see continually in my life. Like Bella, I (and many other young ladies, I’m sure) struggle with putting too much emphasis on worldly and fleeting things, but our Heavenly Father is so good and lovingly tests us (as Bella is tested!) to bring us to the point of realizing what truly matters. In addition, Bella’s story encourages me in the area of faith and trust in God; I wrote an article about this parallel some time back, which can be found here (WARNING: article contains spoilers).
Lizzie Hexam also shines as an inspirational character. Until the middle of the film, she stands as a notable contrast to Bella. One of the scenes that struck me recently was that in which Bella visits Lizzie across their paths cross for the first time directly. When Bella confronts Lizzie on her choice for living in secret, she asks, “What’s the gain in that?” and Lizzie replies so selflessly, “Does a woman’s heart seek to gain anything?” Her love throughout the film is so selfless and so beautiful, so Christlike—for a love that loves without thought of what it can receive, and regardless of the other person’s failures and weakness—can only spring from a heart where Christ reigns freely.
Bradley Headstone’s character also creates much food for thought—perhaps not so pleasant food for thought, however. 🙂 How does a man descend from being a respectable (though somewhat unstable) schoolmaster to such a mad and conscience-seared…well, I won’t say what for sake of those who don’t want spoilers. 🙂 This aspect is further explored in this article (also containing plot spoilers).
While some may find the “dark” aspects of the story too much for their taste, and while others may find fault in the extent of complexity in the plot and extreme situations, I have to admit, Our Mutual Friend may be my favorite of all Dickens’ books that I have read or watched. It is such a beautiful love story; and I love deep and complex plots and thought-provoking storylines…and besides, it has some great one-liners (particularly thanks to Eugene Wrayburn! 🙂 )
In addition, I think the filmmakers did a wonderful job in bringing this classic work of Dickens to screen. I’m pretty near crazy over Steven Mackintosh’s portrayal of Rokesmith, and Anna Friel does wonderfully as Bella Wilfer. It was a surprise and delight to see the actress of the selfish and fashionable Cynthia Kirkpatrick of Wives and Daughters as a quiet, sweet, good young woman. Perhaps one of the best actors is one of the worst characters—how David Morrissey could play such a detestable character in Our Mutual Friend and then such a steady, good, and romantic character in the 2008 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility seems proof to me of excellent acting skills (even if he acts well enough to make my mom dislike this movie simply for his role! 🙂 ) Along with the excellent casting in the good points of the series are the beautiful score, consisting of a good deal of cello and piano; gorgeous costumes and hairstyles reflecting the decade during which the story takes places (the 1860s); and stunning cinematography that captures the very emotions of the characters and the details of both the grand houses and the miry river. Beautifully done.
All that said, I highly recommend this movie to those who enjoy a good Dickensian tale. It will either climb to your favorites list by the time you are done with it, or you may want to throw it into Old Harmon’s dust mounds in disgust over the very-well-acted slimy characters. 🙂 I will again refer you to your remote control for the one questionable scene I mentioned and would add that the story may not be suitable for younger children (due to the complexity of the plot in general and the darker elements). I hope you will enjoy the miniseries as much as I have.
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