Thames the Breaks

Less than she deserves: Paul McGann is Eugene and Keeley Hawes is Lizzie in Our Mutual Friend.Photo: John Rogers/BBC Worldwide

Except for the unfinished mystery of edwin Drood, Our Mutual Friend was the last novel Charles Dickens wrote, and arguably his darkest, with those dust heaps and the filthy corpse-strewn Thames. It’s of particular interest to his psychosexual biographers because the women in it, like Estella in Great Expectations, obviously embodied some of his ambivalence about Ellen Ternan, the actress for whom he had abandoned his wife and family. But it’s equally compelling to dialectical materialists because, by the 1860s, the novelist had come to despise the money-grubbing bourgeoisie. About Our Mutual Friend, Edmund Wilson – one of the first important critics to rescue Dickens from the indulgent contempt we reserve for the enthusiasms of our childhood – was tongue-in-cheeky in The Wound and the Bow: “To state it in Marxist language,” the final implication of the story is that “the declassed representatives of the old professional upper classes may unite with the proletariat against the commercial middle class.”

Thus, Eugene Wrayburn will marry Lizzie Hexam no matter what the Veneerings think, and whether or not he deserves her.

Here is where one is supposed to declare a partisan preference for this Dickens novel or that one, on an ascending scale from, say, A Tale of Two Cities, for which one should be ashamed, to Bleak House, which ought to eliminate law school as an option for anyone honorable. But I’m so middle-aged that I’ve come to think of “Dickens” not as a shelf of discrete volumes variously meritorious but as an environment unto itself, sort of like television. Like TV, this “Dickens” environment is vital and promiscuous, disorderly and gregarious, disgruntled and facetious, malevolent and absurd, exhibitionistic and sometimes even surreal. Like TV, it is theatrical, even stagy; traffics in stereotypes; seeks, when not trolling for belly laughs, to balance the skewed accounts of the world with rough justice, and maybe mercy, or at least revenge; specializes in abused children, inadequate parents, and oppressive institutions; and can be counted on, between murders, to express its compassion for the underdog in gothic sentimentality and fairy tales dressed up in the drag of social realism. Television and “Dickens” are also both weirdly psychoanalytic – as if the very act of serializing opened the closet to easy access to Freud’s “primary process,” dumping the dreamy stuff all over us in condensations and displacements.

Thus, money is symbolic excrement.

And the BBC/Mobil Masterpiece Theatre production of Our Mutual Friend (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, January 3, 4, and 5; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), directed by Julian Farino from a teleplay by Sandy Welch, is terrific television, worth every one of its six black hours. This is a London looking back to William Blake’s dark satanic mills and forward to T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” If Bleak House was befogged, Our Mutual Friend is watery and ashed-upon. Tune in if only to see the mountains of dust. They may be admirable – from the cinders of such iron, leather, cloth, and household refuse, china and soaps and bricks could be made – but their aspect here, with phantasmal bonfires, is eerie unto evil, like rubbishy dunes on a moon of waste, like burial mounds of abandoned hopes. Tune in as well for the sinister Thames. The Thames in the 1593 of Shakespeare in Love might have been a canal in Venice, with Gwyneth Paltrow in her radiance only a water-winged cab ride away. This Dickensian Thames is sluggish and foul, a drowning pool for luckless mariners, from which bodies are fished up to scavenge. As in Eliot, the river sweats oil and tar; the barges drift. Another kind of recycling is proposed – of flesh as commodity, of humanity as waste.

Keeley Hawes is also terrific, as the boatman’s daughter Lizzie. She was wonderful in The Moonstone, and splendid again as Charlotte Ellison three weeks ago in the A&E production of Anne Perry’s The Cater Street Hangman, and whether she’s upper-crust or working-class, she always knocks our socks off. I have decided that she deserves better than Paul McGann’s dissolute, guilt-ridden, declassed Wrayburn, not even to mention David Morrissey’s Bradley Headstone, the mad and murderous schoolmaster. She should even disown her younger brother Gaffer (David Schofield), who’s so quick to sell out his class origins. She may in fact be too good for anyone but me, if I were only younger and had a horse. For that matter, Anna Friel’s Bella Wilfer deserves more than Steven Mackintosh’s John Harmon, even after he has stopped pretending to be a wimpy John Rokesmith. She may be a coquette, but to spy on and test her as if she were a Skinner-box pigeon is contemptible. I like the Boffins (Pam Ferris and Peter Vaughan), and so will you. I hate the Veneerings (Rose English and Michael Culkin), as we’re supposed to. Kenneth Cranham’s Silas Wegg actually improves on the caricature in the book. Had he met her, Dickens himself would have serialized Margaret Tyzack, who plays Lady Tippins, for another 900 pages.

If you are not familiar with the novel’s double plot, tough darts. I’m not about to try to synopsize in three minutes what it takes a public television mini-series six hours to sort out. Suffice it to say that murder and blackmail are involved, as well as seduction and betrayal, and adoption and inheritance, plus alcoholism and grave-robbing, not to neglect disguised identities and Peeping Toms, doll-makers and taxidermists, South Africa and the catacombs, Latin and the law. As always in Dickens, and so often on television, the characters are better at soliloquizing than they are at conversation, as if each, in isolation, were worrying his or her private wound; as if each, like the author, had secret criminal tendencies. And as perhaps too often in the Victorian novel, it all works out a bit too neatly, as if true love and benign coincidence made radical action for social change unnecessary, no matter how squalid and hypocritical the times.

It occurs to me that these dust heaps reappear in The Great Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald. And that this great theme of waste finally found its epic poet in Don DeLillo, whose Underworld sings of pyramids of garbage, from the Fresh Kills landfill to the desert scrap-heap dumping grounds of B-52 bombers, from those Mesozoic salt beds in which we store our radioactive rubbish to the cosmic clouds of slushed fetuses floating in Sister Edgar’s rings of Saturn. It’s too bad DeLillo couldn’t have waited around a little longer for the sight of our very own mayor dispatching his imperial scows of refuse to helpless New Jersey, like Bob Newhart’s evil twin or a Flying Dutchman Cleanser.

Thames the Breaks