The body of John Harmon, a young man returning from South Africa to claim his inheritance, is pulled from the River Thames, setting in motion the plot of Charles Dickens's darkest and most complex novel. Harmon had been expected to marry Bella Wilfer, a young woman chosen by his father, but now the Harmon fortune will go to the poor but honest Mr. Boffin and his wife. The Boffins adopt Bella, and together they begin to climb the ladder of London society, under the watchful eye of Boffin's new secretary, who may not be what he seems. Meanwhile Eugene Wrayburn, an idle young lawyer, falls for Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the man who pulled Harmon's body from the river, but he must compete for her affections with the schoolmaster Bradley Headstone. As the fortunes of the characters rise and fall, the River Thames flows eternally on, the symbolic backbone of this remarkable story.
Dickens was the master of Victorian social satire, ruthlessly exposing the cruelty and absurdity that supported the strictly hierarchical class structure of the day. This superb production does his novel justice, fleshing out the satirical bones of the plot with performances that eschew caricature in favor of psychological depth. Anna Friel's Bella is wonderfully complex, her innate goodness struggling with her love of money and desire for advancement. Paul McGann, as the lawyer Wrayburn, is also superb, wrestling with the implications of his feelings for Lizzie. And of course, this being Dickens and the BBC, there's a terrific supporting cast, including Timothy Spall as the melancholy articulator of skeletons, Mr. Venus. At six hours, Our Mutual Friend is a long production, but not a moment too long. A mystery, a love story, a critique of the pursuit of wealth and status, this is perhaps the best adaptation of Dickens ever to be committed to film. --Simon Leake