Bleak House: A Dickens Novel on the Screen

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I discovered Bleak House, as I do so many great film series, browsing in my local library. It seems to be an exceptional adaptation of a Charles Dickens’ novel written between 1851-53. I have seen a number of adaptations of Dickens’ works and I think this has to be the best film series of the bunch, at least of the several that I have seen to this point. This fifteen-part mini-series follows Dickens’ panoramic view of a great story line while it removes the sentimentality of the novel’s period and style. It is filled with eccentric characters and complex turns of plot, though some of them I did figure out quite ahead of the revelation itself.  It is a series that is loaded with suspense or momentum and once I got to episode five or six I was hooked and pressed on to the finish line over several days time.

The story begins, in early nineteenth century England, with two innocent young orphans (Patrick Kennedy and Carey Mulligan) who come to live as guardians in a lovely home where they are to live as the potential heirs to a fortune. While their lives move forward, over the course of roughly a two-year period, their fates are caught up in a monumental legal battle known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. But the real charm and joy of the story is another orphan, Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose mysterious parentage proves to be intertwined with the fate of the Jarndyce wards and the aloof Lady Dedlock, played by the X-Files star Gillian Anderson.Gillian
Charles Dickens’ story works its way along  the trail of a rather tedious but interesting vision of the legal system to a heartbreaking domestic drama and then to a murder investigation. It includes what one reviewer called “near-Gothic horror, all broken into utterly delicious half-hour segments (after the hour-long opening episode).” 

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther, is simply amazing. She has the rare power to bring the viewer into her life and character like few roles I have seen played in such a mini-series. As one critic has written, “She is utterly beguiling, homely at one moment and luminous the next.” And, adds reviewer Brett Fetzer, “Anderson’s grippingly eerie and brittle performance will delight her fans. But to single out anyone seems absurd, because every character—from the vicious lawyer Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance, White Mischief) to the foppish parasite Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) to the simpering clerk Guppy (Burn Gorman)—is intricately drawn, all hitting a mesmerizing balance between caricature and stark emotional honesty. Bleak House demonstrates that humor, pathos, and social criticism can all be contained in one wonderfully entertaining package.”

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Screen writer Andrew Davies isn’t a big name in the U.S., but he’s the master of the BBC mini-series. His wonderful scripts for Pride & Prejudice (the Colin Firth version which I think is also a superb BBC film), Bridget Jones’s Diary and many more are all peerless examples of classic novels done right—cunningly edited and shaped to allow rich emotion and sharp intelligence to spill over into the viewer’s imagination with a profound power. 

There was an earlier version of Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg, but all the reviews that I searched and read online agree that this newer version is superb in almost every way. Having not seen the earlier version I can only go by what I did see and I simply loved the 2005 version of Bleak House. It is 465 minutes and is on a 3-disc set.

Peripheral to the major plot are the usual cast of Dickens "characters” who fill out many subplots. Some of these seem unimportant but they are all interesting. One of the marks of Dickens’ true greatness was the way he could develop so many characters so well within one novel and still stay on the story. In Bleak House there is Krook, the junkman (Johnny Vegas), who finds some incriminating letters (“and dies the strangest death in all fiction” as one has put it). Then there is Smallweed the moneylender (Phil Davis), a rather despicable and amusing character who cannot walk and must be "shaken up" by his weird niece every few minutes. Smallweed gets the incriminating letters about Lady Dedlock and all he wants is money, money and money. Then there is Miss Flite (Pauline Collins) who looks forward to "judgment day,” in an oddly Christian sense, but is genuinely eccentric. She believes that her case will finally be settled by God and then she can set her birds free. (She possesses a number of caged birds who are more real to her than people!) Perhaps the most interesting of all the characters is the policeman Bucket (Alun Armstong), no relationship I think. He is apparently the first real detective in English fiction. (Dickens was a true genius!) Although Bucket looks like a tool of the rich, he does his job well. He solves a really vexing murder case and remains considerate toward a certain lady who would suffer profoundly if her connection with the case should come out in public. He endeared himself to me rather magically.

While a Dickens novel might have more turns than a British road in the Yorkshire dales the acting and period presentations are truly of the highest level. I admit that I have not read the novel Bleak House but these DVDs are truly stunning and superb. The series captures the essence of the Victorian period very well. The story moves at a fast pace and though you may be stumped now and then you will end up saying, “I am sorry this series is over. I will have to watch it again.”

 

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