Warner Bros. // 2005 // 465 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 6th, 2006
Krook: [about Nemo] They say he sold his soul to the Devil. If he has, I don't know what he did with the money.
I first heard of Bleak House because my X-Files-fan friends were buzzing about Gillian Anderson appearing in a British series. The idea of Special Agent Dana Scully dressed in Victorian corsets seemed to excite them to no end. Also of note was that the script was written by the same scribe who had penned the "Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy" mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice, Andrew Davies. So I was interested to see what all the hubbub was about.
A never-ending court battle over a will begins, and three young people searching for a place in the world are swept up in a drama that makes soap operas seem simple. The BBC has taken each installment of Charles Dickens' serial novel Bleak House and created 15 half-hour episodes. On DVD it's going to take you nearly eight hours to get through the series, but look on the bright side. When the show aired in England, people had to wait a week in between each half-hour installment. In addition to the famed Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce estate case, there's a murder with infinite suspects, a smallpox scare, a dark secret to hide, three marriage proposals, and an orphan's realization of who she is. It's a journey through the damned and the blessed of Dickens' London.
The cast is huge and the plot is sprawling, yet somehow Bleak House achieves the impossible. It sucks you in from the opening scene, and never lets go until the final episode credits roll. Be very careful of this series, and plan to do little else other than obsess about it for as long as you take to watch it. Each episode ends in a maddening cliffhanger, so you might find yourself constantly saying "just one more, damn it."
Over forty different actors are featured in the production, many of them familiar faces from BBC dramas over the years. Most people come in looking for Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. The actress from Chicago pulls off a flawless English accent, and looks as great as you can imagine in the period dress and hair. She's dark and severe, and dances through Bleak House as if to the manor born. All of the acting is impeccable, and period details are spot on. Esther is played refreshingly by Anna Maxwell Martin (North and South). Charles Dance (Gosford Park) makes for a wickedly cool Mr. Tulkinghorn. And Star Wars fans will be interested to see Denis Lawson (Ewan MacGregor's uncle) play someone other than Wedge Antilles.
The best thing about Bleak House is that, for an eight-hour costume drama, it books along with the pace of a well-timed Die Hard film. Despite having the luxury of the mini-series format on its side, it has to advance the plot at a maddening pace to get it all out there on the screen. Don't expect one of these somber leisurely paced Masterpiece Theatre affairs -- this one is like Twin Peaks on steroids funneled back a few centuries. Think Dynasty meets A Tale of Two Cities, and you're there in Bleak House.
This is actually the second time Bleak House has been adapted for the small screen by Masterpiece Theatre. Originally, back in 1985, Diana Rigg played Lady Dedlock, but this version trumps its forerunner. It's a darker and more serpentine treatment, using better editing and modern tricks to tart up the source material. The truth is Bleak House seems oddly liberal with its views on the appalling treatment of the poor by the rich in England. It should resonate with anyone who thinks the system only serves to make people more desperate than they should be at every turn.
The technical transfer is quite strong. A nice widescreen transfer fits perfectly on your 16:9 widescreen television screen, or letterboxes artfully on your 4:3. It looks beautiful with a deliciously dreary shadowy murk that never lets up. Colors are rich, and look like a master painting come to life. The visual treatment of the show is sumptuous, and the DVD preserves this quite well. The stereo sound mix is serviceable, though I do regret they passed up the chance to provide a more full surround mix.
The only thing missing in this handsome package are extras. It would be interesting to see how the production came to be, and hear from the participants who brought the whole thing to life. Unfortunately, we are not graced with such insider information, or even treated to a measly commentary. I applaud the opportunity to have the entire series at my fingertips, but I wish I could plunge further in to the production. Pity they withheld such things from us.
If you're searching for a stylish British mini-series with gorgeous production values, tight acting, and a chance to see Scully in another era, Bleak House is the must-buy DVD of the year. It's quite addictive, maddeningly paced, and entertaining. It puts a decidedly modern twist on a classic piece of literature, and proves the best soap operas in the world are centuries old. Forget all about General Hospital -- Bleak House is far more sudsy and satisfying.
Guilty of making me want to walk around with an English accent and pretend to be the heir of a long sought after fortune, Bleak House proves how much fun Masterpiece Theatre can be.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 465 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated