Judge Gordon Sullivan lives in a bleak bungalow.
Our review of Bleak House, published March 6th, 2006, is also available.
By sheer coincidence I happened to be reading Bleak House for a class when this BBC adaptation premiered on American shores. I avoided watching it because I hadn't finished the book and I didn't want a new vision of the book to interrupt my reading. However, the adaptation was rather well-received, from what I gathered, even by my fellow students who watched it. As my class moved on, I put both the book and the show out of mind, and I'd forgotten completely about this show before it showed up on my doorstep. With the novel several years behind me, I can say that Bleak House stands well on its own, but might not please more diehard Dickens fans.
Facts of the Case
It is the mid-nineteenth century, in London, and the British have perfected the most diabolical system of law: chancery. Although developed as a means to settle cases out of Equity (or what is right as opposed to what is commonly held to be legal), the courts at Chancery have developed into a grim parody of justice delayed and denied, often until all the claimants have long been deceased or driven mad. The most famous of these cases is Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which will draw numerous people into its irregular orbit: Ada (Carey Mulligan, Pride & Prejudice) and Richard (Patrick Kennedy, Atonement), wards of the court and heirs of the dreaded Jarndyce and Jarndyce; Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin, Becoming Jane), an orphan raised by her godmother to feel worthless; John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson, Dolls), a claimant who has given up his stake in Chancery and decides to take in Ada, Richard, and Esther out of the goodness of his heart; and Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files), a bored upper-class woman with a rather scandalous secret. The story of the court case weaves these lives together with the denizens of London, providing intrigue, romance, and secrets galore.
This Blu-ray release spread all 15 episodes over three discs.
Adaptations, especially of the sprawling nineteenth century novels, are all about choices, and one thing you can't fault Bleak House for is boring choices.
The big media attraction to Bleak House was certainly Gillian Anderson's turn as Lady Dedlock. Choosing an American to anchor such a crucial role in a BBC production is a bold move, and one that pays off for the show. Anderson brings the same gravitas she showed in House of Mirth combined with a credible English accent. The rest of the cast is generally well-chosen, with no sore thumbs sticking out for being too modern or too stodgy. I do have a few quibbles, including an Esther that seems a bit too aware, but for every quibble there's a spot on portrayal of characters like Mrs. Jellby, Mr. Tulkinghorn, or Mr. Guppy.
As an English major, I'm a sucker for good opening lines, and the novel Bleak House opens simply by beautifully with the sentence "London." It is followed closely by a description of that same city: "As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosarus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." It's easy to see, then, that any cinematic adaptation has some wonderful visual imagery to work with, and this Bleak House treads a fine line between being true to the grit of Dickens' London while also being rather beautiful, cinematographically speaking. Rather than going the Terry Gilliam mud and dirty faces route, the team behind Bleak House opt to make much of the dirt invisible by keeping light in the frame to a minimum. As such, this show is often very dark, lit only by candles. While this might lose some of the verisimilitude of London's grimier aspects, it still conveys the feeling of foreboding with which Dickens imbues the city.
Finally, there is the matter of pacing. Bleak House runs 770 pages in the Norton Critical Edition I have at hand, and it was serialized by Dickens over a two-year period (1851-2). This show boils all of that down to 15 episodes totaling around eight hours, if you take out the credits. Because of this, the show must move at a breakneck speed, introducing characters quickly and efficiently so that all the plot machinations can be covered in the allotted time. Despite the short running time, I was surprised that many characters didn't get the axe completely, even if their screen time was reduced. To further help the pacing, each episode ends on a kind of cliffhanger, making this an addictive series for some.
I was sent a set of check discs for this set, so my comments on the audio visual presentation might not entirely reflect the final product. In general, I was impressed with the look of this series in high definition. The darker scenes retained a decent amount of detail, with strong blacks. Many scenes occur in a blue light and colors remained strong. However, there was an occasional problem with flicker; often it blended perfectly with the tone of the material and seemed intentional, but occasionally it jumped out. There was also a pretty serious problem with high-contrast areas, especially highlights in dark hair, where lots of shimmer occurs. It was often distracting until I got used to it. Bleak House isn't the kind of stereo-challenging material audiophiles look for, but gets the job done with easily audible dialogue and a well-balanced score. Subtitles are available, which is a nice plus for those of us in America.
The extras start with an alternate audio track that adds narration to some of the scenes without dialogue, giving the adaptation a more novelistic feel. The other big extra is a series of interviews, one per disc, with some of the cast, including Gillian Anderson. We also get a commentary on the first episode with the producer, the director, and the screenwriter, who all share bits about the development of the series. Finally, there's a photo gallery on the last disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Enjoyment of Bleak House will rest entirely on your feelings towards the choices that have been made during the adaptation process. Personally, I think the show goes a little too far in attempting to make the material interesting with the breakneck pace and camera wizardry. It's almost a tacit admission that the material is not sufficiently strong, and, if it's not sufficiently strong, why adapt it?
Also, some more extras would have been appreciated. The commentary answered some questions, but didn't have the time to cover the full breadth of what it takes to adapt such a huge story.
As I watched Bleak House I could hear numerous far-off cries. I still don't know if those cries were sounds of relief from all the young students who will now not have to suffer quite so much at the hands of Dickens' Bleak House because of this accessible adaptation, or if the cries were of all the English teacher who will now have to rewrite tests to trip up students who only sampled this series instead of reading the book. In either case, Bleak House is an interesting update of a classic novel, even if it's not entirely successful. Fans of Dickens and Gillian Anderson (that's quite a pair) should certainly give this set a rental at the least.
For bringing Bleak House to contemporary audiences, this adaptation is not guilty.
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