Bleak House



If the film is often a novella, the TV mini-series is often the full-fat 600-pager, with Charles Dickens right up at the top of the list when it comes to cliffhanger endings to the week’s proceedings – the stories were often written for serialisation, Bleak House having appeared in 20 weekly editions of 32 pages plus illustrations. The BBC have something of a lock on Dickens, but their productions can be a bit dusty, more focused on the clothes than the action. But not this Bleak House. This 2005 outing is their best Dickens since 1994’s Martin Chuzzlewit and has the edge on its previous Bleak House, made in 1985 and starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott.

It is a brooding, majestic production, with depth and breadth at every level. The plot centres on the workings of the chancery court, and in particular the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, a decision on which has dragged down through the decades. A generation before Kafka had worked up his own vision of byzantine and murky (in)justice there was Dickens before him, painting a picture of people held in stasis for their entire lives while a court decides who is to be the beneficiary of a will.

Casting is again the secret of this one’s success, with two central performances by an astonishing Gillian Anderson as the fragile Lady Dedlock and a majestically nasty Charles Dance as malicious lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn (though why use adjectives to describe his character when Dickens has done it with a name). Anna Maxwell Martin is its heroine, the plucky Esther, and she is as inspired piece of casting, as is Carey Mulligan, who had only made her professional acting debut the year before.

The cast list is rock solid all the way down but holds a few surprises, the names Liza Tarbuck, Johnny Vegas, Catherine Tate and Alistair McGowan being best known in the UK for being amiable light entertainers rather than actors. Well, they amiably play the comedy grotesque here in an adaptation full of larger than life characters, fuelled by a plot that’s reality run through a distorting lens, speaking lines (adapted by safe pair of hands Andrew Davies) that’s 50 per cent gothic exaggeration, 50 per cent stiletto – Dickens’s own upbringing had been ruined when his father was thrown into a debtors prison, so he had little affection for the workings of the legal system, which is the real villain of this piece.

On a different tack entirely, this was the BBC’s first drama series to be shot in hi-def, so its looks are stiletto-sharp too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013



Bleak House – at Amazon






4 thoughts on “Bleak House”

  1. Bleak House is not a book I have read. I was however aware that the central story concerned the never-ending courtroom litigation of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. As a child, this book, I decided was way too boring to read. How wrong I was. I never dreamt that a Dickens novel could become such an obsession in later life.

    This dazzling adaptation is serialised in the same way that Dickens serialised his masterpiece in the popular press. Each half-hour episode ends on a cliff-hanger. We, the viewers, are forced to count the days until the next episode is screened. ( and there is only 6 more to go!!!) It is impossible to find fault with the production. The characterisations and directing are the best I have seen from the Drama Department of the BBC. They have managed to capture the gloom, grime and squalor of the late 19th century convincingly.

    Each actor is ideally cast. Charles Dance as the lawyer Tulkinghorn is evil personified. Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, totally unrecognisable from her X-File days, is fragile and enigmatic. Particularly noteworthy in the host of Dickensian eccentrics are Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Johnny Vegas as Krook and Philip Davis as "Shake me up Judy" Smallweed and Burn Gorman as Guppy. However it is invidious to single anyone out of such a stellar casting.

    I cannot give this drama a higher recommendation

  2. With just one episode broadcast, it’s clearly possible that the BBC Drama Department may have it’s second big success of 2005.

    With an Andrew Davies script you know what you’re getting, predictable, competent, unimaginative but faithful. Whether this series will go down with the classics or not will be down to the direction and the performances. And the signs are good. Very good.

    Gillian Anderson fans looking in may miss her first scene, there is no trace of Scully whatsoever. People who’ve always suspected her of having more talent than she’s had the opportunity to show are going to be saying "I told you so" to anyone who will listen for the next few months. She’s that good. But Bleak House has the strongest cast we’ve seen in an adaptation since Brideshead. We’ve seen enough already to suggest that it’s going to be full of gems And Anna Maxwell Martin, almost a TV débutante, may just be about to turn in one of the top central performances of recent times.

    Set your videos and PVRs and don’t miss a minute.

    It’ll be better than Rome.

    (Update) We’re halfway through and it’s brilliant. Dickens can’t write a shallow character so it needs a lavish cast to do him justice and that’s what we have here. Gillian Anderson is brilliant, Charles Dance is memorable, Carey Mulligan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas are outstanding, but Anna Maxwell Martin and Burn Gorman are just out of this world. I feel sorry for our American friends, impatient to get started but also jealous that they have the whole thing to look forward, to whereas we are now, sadly, over halfway through.

    If you really can’t wait, get the DVD of North & South (2004) and watch the adorable Anna twinkle in that.

  3. Gillian Anderson is luminous as Lady Dedlock in this adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House. She is helped by the highly atmospheric, Gothic type lighting in many of the scenes which mirrors the dourness and dirt of the era. Particularly effective, are the parts shot in the squalid Victorian homes on winding staircases with peeling paint. Although not yet complete, this is a joy to watch with just the right balance of suspense and comedy. I have had to restrain myself from dipping into the book to find out the ending. I can’t remember the last British costume drama I saw which showcased as much acting talent as this, whether it is the dastardly lawyer played by Charles Dance or the slatternly mother who is Lisa Tarbuck; watch out especially for Pauline Collins (a known talent) and Johnny Vegas (a revelation) who are both really rather good. I believe Sheila Hancok is going to appear soon and I am looking forward to that too.

  4. I’ve just watched the first episode, and I thought it was the best classic adaptation on British television for years. (I have been tiring of costume-drama-by-numbers, and of Andrew Davies’s superficial adaptations in particular, but they’ve got this one right, in my opinion). The directing is excellent, producing uniformly good performances from the actors – even from the likes of Johnny Vegas – and particularly from Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn and from the actress playing Esther Summerson (a tiresomely one-dimensional character in the book).

    The camera moves around in response to characters’ actions in an interesting way, and scenes open and close with swooshing sounds of the sort used these days in sci-fi feature films, keeping things vibrant. Since the early parts of the book are the least successful, I’m sure this serial can’t help but go from strength to strength.

    My favourite scene was Guppy’s hilarious proposal of marriage to Esther.

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