Charles Dickens’ last completed novel received a rather complete adaptation in 1921, courtesy of Denmark’s A.W. Sandberg. The story concerns a bizarre will and a mysterious body found floating in the Thames.
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Our Mutual Friend was the last novel Charles Dickens completed before his death and it was one of his most ambitious works, centering primarily on questions of movement between the classes, the Victorian obsession with respectability, and matters of personal autonomy. It’s a physically imposing tome (some modern editions weigh in at 800 pages) and, compared with other Dickens works like A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, it has not had many screen adaptations.
Since it is my favorite Dickens novel, I was delighted to discover that one of the rare big screen adaptations partially survives. This 1921 Danish production has a more or less intact first half but the second half is about 50% missing. Still, half a loaf…
To my knowledge, this is the only time Our Mutual Friend was adapted in its entirety for the big screen. There was a truncated version released in 1911 that only covered one set of characters and there have been several British television miniseries (do check out the excellent 1998 version).
One of the reasons this book is not exactly film-friendly is that the plot and cast are both massive and interlocking. It’s extremely difficult to excise anything without the entire edifice tumbling down. Events that seem to be minor subplots turn out to be story-changing catalysts. It’s impossible to write out a synopsis that is in any way pithy, so I will simply divide the book into two basic parts and briefly map them out. The film, with one or two small changes, is remarkably faithful to the novel.
The Hook: An old miser named Harmon who made his fortune recycling rubbish has spent his time writing numerous wills, most for the purpose of hurting his estranged son, John.
The last made before his death had the bizarre clause that his son will inherit if he marries a young lady named Bella Wilfer. The young people have never met and old Harmon seemingly chose Bella at random after spotting her throwing a public tantrum as a child.
John Harmon is returning home to meet his fiancée and claim his inheritance when… He is found bludgeoned to death, floating in the Thames.
The aftermath of John Harmon’s death affects the lives of two couples.
John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer: Bella was mortified to be left to a stranger in a will like a parcel. She’s lively and spirited and has decided that she will pursue money and fun. Rokesmith is the Wilfer family’s lodger and works as the personal secretary to the Boffins, a sweet older couple who were employed by the Harmon family. They were stand-in parents to John Harmon, and ended up inheriting the fortune. Rokesmith is involved in the Harmon murder up to his neck.
Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam: Eugene is a classic gentleman wastrel and is connected to the Harmon case through his best friend, Mortimor Lightwood, who has been handling the will. Lizzie Hexam’s father, Gaffer, makes his living by rowing the Thames and robbing corpses. He found Harmon’s body and is a prime suspect in his murder. Eugene falls for Lizzie but knows he cannot possibly marry her. Meanwhile, a schoolmaster named Bradley Headstone has been trying to Nice Guy his way into Lizzie’s arms and when that doesn’t work, he becomes violent…
Pant, pant, pant. And that doesn’t even bring in the colorful supporting cast. Jenny Wren, the parentified girl-woman dollmaker; Mr. Venus, the lovelorn, tea-mad taxidermist; Silas Wegg, the scheming ballad salesman; Charlie Hexam, Lizzie’s social climbing younger brother; Rogue Riderhood, Gaffer Heman’s rival in the corpse-thieving trade.
It also doesn’t bring in the completely different and massive subplot involving the nouveau riche Veneerings and the sanctimonious Podsnaps. This plot thread is usually truncated or, as is the case with the 1921 Danish film, eliminated entirely as it’s one of the few places where Our Mutual Friend can be slimmed down.
Further, Our Mutual Friend lacks standalone iconic scenes like “Please, sir, I want some more” and “It’s a far, far better thing…” There are memorable scenes but they are all heavily tied to other events of the novel and cannot be used to market the thing.
In short, director A. W. Sandberg dove into the deep end of the Dickens pool.
The success of a Dickens adaptation is at least 50% determined by the quality of its cast. Dickens wrote in the “describe everything” era and he painted distinct and often grotesque word pictures. For a Dickens film to work, the cast must look the part and throw themselves into the spirit of the thing.
On that score, this version of Our Mutual Friend is pretty much an endless series of delights. John Rokesmith (Aage Fønss, little brother of Olaf), Eugene Wrayburn (Peter Malberg), Lizzie Hexam (Karen Caspersen) and Bella Wilfer (Kate Riise) were all described or treated as highly attractive in the novel and so they are in the film as well. But the casting department managed to find a perfectly cherubic Reginald Wilfer (Carl Madsen), a bizarre Mr. Venus (Charles Wilken) and a looks-creepier-the-more-you-see-of-him Bradley Headstone (Peter Nielsen). Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (Alfred Møller and Jonna Neiiendam) are just as warm as you could wish.
Screenwriter Laurids Skands did a very good job of keeping the various story threads straight and the plot and characters unroll at a pace that allows the audience to take everything in. With a cast this huge, it’s important to give everyone room to breathe and this was accomplished through careful pacing.
This film focuses on the characters and the story, it’s not out to set the world on fire with ostentatious cinematography but there are some extremely effective moments. Dramatic shots of the old Harmon place overlooking piles of garbage, moody lighting in the various holes and hovels, and an extremely good murder scene that makes use of gold and blue tints to communicate a light being snuffed out. There’s also a very modern shot when Silas Wegg is introduced. The camera focuses on his wooden leg (an important plot device) and then pans up to show us the whole man. Standard practice today, uncommon in 1921. (More typical would be an iris shot of the leg and then cut to a medium shot of the man.)
Unfortunately, the lost footage in the second half of the film is severe (about 30-40 minutes, by my best guess) and we are denied the payoff to several important storylines. (If you’re already familiar with the story, here’s the major missing stuff: Mr. Boffin firing Rokesmith and Bella coming to his defense, Eugene and Headstone both following Lizzie and Headstone’s violent attack, Lizzie’s rescue of Eugene, Headstone’s murder-suicide of Riderhood.) Obviously, this missing footage is no reflection on the production itself, I just really hope some of the missing material surfaces one day.
Our Mutual Friend is an extremely satisfying Dickens adaptation but the missing footage does mean you will have to rely on previous knowledge of the story. (The gaps are covered to a certain extent by title cards.) The casting is superb and, while the film does not set out to be particularly avant-garde in its cinematography, there are some rather lovely moments. If you like Dickens, do check this out. I am looking forward to seeking out more of Sandberg’s work.
Where can I see it?
You can view it for free on Stumfilm. It does not yet have English subtitles but it is so faithful to the book that if you are at all familiar with the novel, you should have no trouble following it even if you do not speak Danish.
You can read Our Mutual Friend for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg and if you prefer audiobooks, the Librivox recordings are also free.
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