Since her birth, Amy Dorrit has lived in the Marshalsea Prison for Debt, where she cares for her father William, who is held in great esteem by the other inmates. To help financially assist her family, she works as a seamstress for Mrs. Clennam, a semi-invalid who is confined to her crumbling home with her servants, the sinister Jeremiah Flintwinch and his bumbling wife Affery.
Arthur Clennam returns from China with his father’s pocket watch and delivers it to Mrs. Clennam, as Mr. Clennam’s dying wish was for the watch to go to Arthur’s mother. Arthur becomes reacquainted with his former sweetheart, the now overweight widow Flora Finching, who hopes to rekindle the affection the couple shared before they were separated by their disapproving parents. However, he is enamoured with Pet Meagles, who favours ne’er-do-well aspiring artist Henry Gowan, much to the distress of her parents. Meanwhile, in Marseille, murderer Rigaud and his timid cell-mate Jean-Baptiste Cavaletto separately are released from jail, and Cavaletto makes plans to journey to England.
Arthur befriends Amy, whose affection for him grows as John Chivery, who oversees the Marshalsea entrance with his father, watches in dismay, as he is in love with the girl.
Arthur’s father’s dying words lead him to believe his family may have been responsible for the Dorrits’ misfortunes, resulting in Mr. Dorrit being imprisoned without just cause. He asks rent collector and amateur detective Mr. Pancks to investigate the situation. He then visits the Meagles family in their rural home, where he is intrigued by their servant, the orphaned black girl Tattycoram, and her odd relationship with the mysterious Miss Wade.
John Chivery proposes to Amy, who gently declines his offer, upsetting her father, who fears a rift in their relationship will affect his favoured position in the prison. Arthur, unaware how much Amy cares for him, realises Pet Meagles prefers rival suitor Henry Gowan to him. Through her parents he meets inventor and engineer Daniel Doyce, and the two men decide to become business partners.
Cavalletto arrives in London and discovers he’s been followed by Rigaud, who meets Ephraim Flintwinch, Jeremiah’s twin brother, in a tavern. The man has in his possession a box containing Mrs. Clennam’s secret papers, which she had ordered her servant to burn but he had given to Ephraim for safekeeping instead. Rigaud suspects the contents of the box are valuable and, after plying Ephraim with drink, he leads him to a deserted passageway, where he murders him and confiscates the box.
Amy’s sister Fanny brings her to visit Mrs. Merdle, the wife of a wealthy investor and the mother of her ardent admirer, Edmund Sparkler. Mrs. Merdle disapproves of Fanny’s career as a music hall entertainer and offers her a gold bracelet and new dresses to leave her son alone.
Mr. Pancks continues to investigate the connection between the Dorrits and the Clennams, prompting Amy to become suspicious. Cavaletto, fearfully running away from Rigaud, who has changed his name to Blandois, is knocked down by a horse and treated by the impoverished Plornish family, who offer him accommodations. Cavaletto eventually finds employment with Arthur and Daniel Doyce in their factory in the Bleeding Heart Yard.
Arthur proposes to Pet, who announces she is marrying Henry Gowan. Tattycoram, tired of taking orders from the Meagles family, leaves them and finds shelter with Miss Wade.
Blandois visits Mrs. Clennam. Although he does not reveal he has her papers, Flintwinch suspects he managed to wrest them from his missing brother. Mrs. Clennam invites Blandois to return at a later date and discuss business.
Pet and Henry marry and depart for Venice, where he plans to study art. Arthur confesses he loved Pet to Amy, who does not reveal her feelings for him.
Mr. Pancks reveals his investigation is complete. He has discovered William Dorrit is heir to a fortune and now is in a position to settle his debts and leave Marshalsea as a very wealthy man. Mr. Dorrit insists his family forget their shameful past and everyone who was a part of it, and he hires Mrs. Hortensia General to educate his daughters and prepare them for their new position in society. They depart on a Grand Tour of Europe, but before they leave England Amy gives her friends the Plornishes a substantial sum of money so they can start a business and free themselves from poverty.
In Venice, the Dorrits encounter Blandois, who has befriended the newly-wed Gowans at the bequest of Miss Wade, who plans to have him eventually harm Henry for reasons not yet disclosed. Both Pet and Amy find themselves uncomfortable in the presence of Blandois, although Henry finds him to be a source of amusement. His feelings change when his dog, who had snarled at Blandois, is found poisoned shortly after the man departs without warning.
William Dorrit becomes increasingly upset with Amy, who has been unable to adapt to the family’s new lifestyle as easily as her father and sister. Her uncle Frederick appears to be the only one who can relate to her feelings.
Also in Venice are Mrs. Merdle and Edmund Sparkler, who tries to romance Fanny. Mrs. Merdle writes to her husband and asks him to find work for her son so she can get him away from Fanny. Back in London, Arthur is frustrated by his efforts to acquire patents for Daniel’s inventions at the Circumlocution Office, where nothing ever is accomplished. At the suggestion of Mr. Pancks, Arthur invests in Mr. Merdle’s highly successful bank in order to increase capital for the business.
Blandois returns to London, where Arthur observes him talking to Miss Wade. He follows her to Flora’s house, where he is told her father holds an allowance in trust for the mysterious woman, but he is not convinced the story is true. His suspicions increase when he encounters Blandois at his mother’s and she refuses to disclose their business. When Blandois mysteriously disappears, Mrs. Clennam comes under suspicion. Cavalletto informs Arthur Blandois is really the murderous Rigaud, but when Arthur confronts his mother with this information, she still refuses to answer his questions. He hires Mr. Pancks to find Miss Wade in the hope she knows Rigaud’s whereabouts.
William Dorrit returns to England with Fanny and Sparkler, who have married. He seeks financial advice from Mr. Merdle, who suggests he invest his fortune in his bank. Mr. Dorrit is welcomed into some of London’s finest homes, but as faces from his past begin to surface, he begins to lose his grasp on sanity. He returns to Venice, where Amy is concerned about his confused state of mind. When Mrs. General rejects his proposal of marriage and quickly departs the family, Mr. Dorrit’s mental state unravels and, at a masked ball hosted by Mrs. Merdle, he humiliates himself when he mistakes her home for the Marshalsea and her guests for his former fellow inmates. Amy brings him home, where he dies, followed immediately by her uncle Frederick. Now alone, Amy returns to London, where she is welcomed by Fanny and Edmund, who invite her to stay with them.
Mr. Pancks has found Miss Wade. She tells Arthur she was an orphan, which inspired her empathy with Tattycoram, and that she once loved Henry Gowan, who rejected her, which prompted her desire to have him killed, but she insists she knows nothing about Rigaud’s fate.
Mr. Merdle visits Fanny and Sparkler and borrows a penknife, which he uses to slash his jugular vein in a tub in the local bathhouse. His suicide note reveals he was a swindler who had had been manipulating his books and has left thousands of people who invested with him in financial ruin. Among them is Arthur, who becomes an inmate at Marshalsea Prison when he is unable to pay his debts. John Chivery then tells Arthur that Amy has always loved him. Arthur becomes seriously ill with a high fever and is nursed back to health by Amy. Amy then offers to use her inheritance from her father to pay Arthur’s debts and release him from the Marshalsea, but he sends her away and asks her not to return.
Rigaud returns to Mrs. Clennam and reveals what he knows from the stolen documents. Her stern, unloving attitude drove her husband into the arms of a woman who bore him a son, Arthur, whom she raised as her own, albeit without any feeling for him. When Arthur’s birth mother died, his father, anxious to help someone else who was disadvantaged, bequeathed money to Amy. Rigaud demands £2,000 to keep silent, but Mrs. Clennam leaves her house for the first time in years to find Amy, reveal the truth, and beg her forgiveness. During her absence, her dilapidated house literally falls apart at the seams and collapses, killing Rigaud. Returning home and discovering the rubble, Mrs. Clennam collapses and dies in the street.
When their father’s will is read, the Dorrit children learn they are penniless, since William had invested all his money with Mr. Merdle. Daniel Doyce returns from Russia, where he patented his inventions and made a fortune, and he insists on sharing his wealth with his business partner.
I deleted the ending. 🙂
I really liked seeing Matthew Macfayden as Arthur Cleman. I’ve seen him in Pride and Prejudice (2005) so it was nice to see him in another film. All the other actors did a great job in their roles. I also saw another familiar face – Harriet Walter…who plays Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility 1995.
The music was very good – creepy for the villain, sad for…well, sad parts, and cheerful when needed. Dickens was a great plot artist; he really knew how to build a complicated plot and have it all tie together. For instance, how do a French criminal, a headstrong servant girl, a poor seamstress, and a mysterious family come together to make a believable plot? Amazing.
For me, Little Dorrit will always be one of my favorite movies (even though its seven and a half hours long). And for those of you who think it will be to dark, be assured it has a happy ending. I’m planning to read the book soon.
One of the funniest scenes!