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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bleak House (2005)

While reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, I realized I was becoming totally lost. So I reached out to Netflix and found a BBC adaptation made in 2005. It turned out to be a good choice, as it not only cleared up several plot points, but was terrific on its own merits.

Written by Andrew Davies, and directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, the adaptation is eight hours long, but still has to jettison many of the characters and plot machinations of Dickens' novel. The choices made are correct, though, focusing mostly on the villainy of Mr. Tulkinghorn, played beautifully by Charles Dance, who in an attempt to keep safe the legacy of the family he represents, ends up destroying it.

I won't repeat the plot here, as it can be found in my review of the book last week. Simply put, the novel has two threads that intertwine in Dickens' indictment of the British legal system. One, a case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, concerning a dispute over wills, has, like some sort of virus, infected the lives of many as it drags on for years. Secondly, there is the secret of Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), the wife of a Baronet (Timothy West), who gave birth to a child in her misspent youth, but was told it died.

That child is Esther Summerson (Ann Maxwell Martin), who is basically the heart and soul of the book and serial. She is one of Dickens most admirable characters, and her devotion to her friends gives you a kind of lift as you watch it. Also a wonderfully good character is John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), Esther's guardian, who falls in love with her.

But Dickens could also create villains. In addition to Tulkinghorn, I loved Phil Davis as Mr. Smallweed, the vile money-lender. Seeing him played made the character really live for me, as Davis, adorned with a greasy wig and yellow horse teeth, is carried in a sedan chair and constantly asks his attending granddaughter to "Shake me up, Judy!" The supercilious Mr. Guppy was amusingly played by Burn Gorham, and the cretinous Mr. Skimpole by Nathaniel Parker.

The good characters outweigh the bad. The last scene, a wedding, brings most of them together and I almost got a tear in my eye. Kudos to Hugo Speer and Sergeant George, and Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, who, in some opinions, was the first detective in English literature. The scene in which he unmasks a murderer has been repeated, stylistically, thousands of times over the years. Also in the cast is the now famous Carey Mulligan, as Ada Clare. She was only twenty years old when this was filmed.

There's great acting and directing here. Anderson, of course, is the major star, and she is spellbinding. She has found herself in a marriage with a much older man she doesn't love, but bears her duties with quiet dignity. But when she finds out her daughter is alive a string breaks. She and Martin share two scenes together, and they are so fraught with honest emotion that it's thrilling to behold. Then, when Lawson makes a sacrifice for the woman he loves, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue.

This television production had an interesting structure. After a one-hour first episode, the remaining fourteen were a half-hour each, which made viewing it a brisker experience--my habit of checking how much time is left was abated because the episode was over before I could get restless. It's unusual for a drama to be only 30 minutes, but it's welcome.

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