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16 April 2006

"Bleak House" (2005)

Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther), Charles Dance (Tulkinghorn), Denis Lawson (John Jarndyce), Gillian Anderson (Lady Dedlock)

Directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White

From the DVD packaging: "Out of an interminable court case spin three young people each searching for their place in the world. Their story moves fast - swirling through an incredible array of characters - from passionate young lovers to ruthless lawyers, from an ice-cold aristocratic beauty to a shrewd, relentless detective - until the final thrilling climax. It has always been recognized as one of Charles Dickens' literary masterworks, but this 'Bleak House' is now fast-moving, daring, gripping television. Here is the murder mystery, the love story, the comic genius, and the tantalizing scandal of the novel but, stripped of its sentimentality, we find ourselves swept along by a pulsating and edgy drama."

Dickens was a fantastic writer of social commentary and satire. I cannot imagine how frightening some of his work must have been to the aristocracy and ruling class of his time. Today, he is lumped in with all manner of stodgy English classics, a tendency that belittles his impact as a reformer and firebrand. Bleak House, for all of its convoluted plots and intricate coincidences, is as much a call to reform as Sinclair's The Jungle was in the United States' Progressive Era. According to Dickens, the situations were comparable. The arcane, tedious, expensive, corrupt Chancery system of law had the potential to (patiently) destroy lives as effectively as unsafe factories.

Morality tales abound in Bleak House, far too many to analyze in great depth, but without an abundance of trite, predictable conclusions. In general, the good fair well and the bad fair poorly. Except for Ada. Except for Mr. Smallweed. Except for John Jarndyce. And Nemo. And Jo. And Guppy. And Skimpole. None of those characters receives the morally appropriate ending he or she deserves. Because his larger intention was to draw attention to the failing legal system, Dickens could not afford to trivialize his work with stereotypes and foregone conclusions. To do so would have distracted from the very real problems he described. Thus, despite the fact that "Bleak House" concludes with one long-awaited happy ending, there are a number of unhappy endings and several... endings, neither good nor bad... all of which added to the believability of the entire narrative arc.

The plot is so convoluted and the cast of characters so significant that I was at a loss - mid-way through - to understand where the thing was taking me. I appreciated this appeal to my curiosity because, after so many Austen-like costume dramas, unpredictability is refreshing! The murder, mentioned in the plot summary above, does not even take place until the end of episode 11 (of 15). Talk about a slow boil!

Much of the credit for the success of this adaptation must be given to Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who also adapted His High Firthness's "Pride and Prejudice" back in 1995. By my count, Davies omitted only 11 out of Dickens' original 54 characters (and added one, that I caught), deftly handling their portrayals to allow significant development despite all of the shared screen time.

In concert with Davies' sreenplay, the directors worked to speed the action to a remarkable degree. With a LOT of ground to cover, Chadwick and White made use of quick cuts, and they abandoned lingering scene transitions. If a character said she was off to London, the next scene took place in London! While disconcerting at first, in that the abandonment of such screen conventions made time progression a little difficult to judge, I liked the rapid-fire pacing. Slow, panoramic shots of the countryside and ladies on horseback were notably, refreshingly absent. No time! Get on with the story!

Because of the steady, building nature of the tale, I was grateful for the compact timeframe in which I had to watch all eight hours. Nothing really gets going until the conclusion of episode four, roughly, which all but guarantees that I would have missed an installment here and there when it was broadcast on PBS in the autumn, perhaps to the point of giving up on the whole venture. That would have been a shame. Instead, because I had only a week to watch this library rental, I absorbed the series in huge chunks, which added an extra immediacy to my viewing and heightened my interest in its conclusion.

This slow boil development also allowed for considerable turn-abouts amongst the characters. I was suspicious of certain persons who turned out all goodness and loyalty. I was intrigued by the main villain because he was not a villain until the story deepened. I have not read the novel so I do not know whether I should credit Dickens or the filmmakers for this subtlety, but the credit is well deserved.

The acting, as you might guess from a BBC drama, was very fine. Anna Maxwell Martin, as Dickens' co-narrator, Esther (seen above in the second portrait), was the heart and soul of this adaptation. Her goodness and solidity was neither annoying, cloying, martyred, or overstated. She was just a nice, deserving young woman. Wedge, too, was a welcome addition to the cast. I never before saw him in anything but Star Wars flicks and Local Hero, so I loved having the chance to appreciate his talents in the vastly more complex role of John Jarndyce (third portrait). Charles Dance exuded confidence and crafty mechanizations without the false, overwrought nastiness of other clever film baddies, and Richard Harrington, as Allan Woodcourt, was a lovely, tasty dish (fourth portrait). He was "Bleak House"'s Mr. Darcy, but without all the contrivances - just a man in love and working hard to do right in the world. His "love me" speech was well worth the seven hours of build-up. Keen! And finally, Gillian Anderson (first portrait) was able to hold herself in such a way as to create a most brittle, icy, prickly posture. The tension in her neck spoke volumes! And her accent wasn't half bad either...

Have eight hours to invest on a quality adapted classic? Start here. This "Bleak House" is rewarding, innovative, and just plain entertaining.

Blogger Tess said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I loved it, although I thought the ending moved too quickly. Funny thing is, I'd read the book but completely forgot whom Esther married--I had rewritten it in my mind with a less happy ending.

17:34  
Blogger carrie_lofty said...

I was actually thinking about the final episode this morning, and you're right - it wrapped up far too quickly. I would have appreciated much more resolution from a number of the storylines. A sixteenth episode would have fleshed out all those loose ends more successfully.

I took a look at the novel on an online source and I am even more impressed by the work it must have taken to adapt this to the screen. There is much less dialogue than I would have imagined - much more by way of Esther's diary-like mental discussions. To expand all of those thoughts into scenes, create engaging dialogue that fit the time period and tone, and then to pace it successfully - a major accomplishment.

19:50  
Anonymous Griyatamabaru said...

Nice article. Thanks

00:49  

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