England is blessed with such vast and large literary heritage that their moviemakers don’t have to look very far for a good story. On the downside, there are several versions of the same classic, putting the pressure on the creative team to bring their own interpretation to the story without insulting the memory of the writer.
I have always been impressed by BBC adaptation of classics – my all time favorite being the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. The acting and the script was truly loyal to the spirit of Jane Austen’s masterpiece.
Now I have never read “Bleak House”, but the casting was enough reason to watch this 2005 production. “Bleak House” is considered to be one of Dickens’ finest work – with a large set of characters and multiple sub-plots all linked together. A satire on the slow moving judicial processes of those times, the main theme of the book is about a monumental case of “Jarndyce vs Jarndyce” and how it impacts the lives of everyone involved.
The main protagonist of this series is Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell), a young sensible woman, an orphan, unwanted by this world. She has been engaged by Mr. John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson) to be a companion to Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan). Ada Clare and Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy) are the young wards of the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce and believed to be the main beneficiary of the will.
Ada, Esther and Richard are all under the guardianship of Mr. John Jarndyce and live at “Bleak House”. Esther is the most prudent and sensible of three, Ada is the woman-child beloved by everyone for her beauty and Richard is the young and the restless man besotted with her, determined to make nothing of his own life, but pinning all his dreams and hopes on the case.
Every Dickens novel has a freeloader, and Mr. Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker) is Bleak House’s. But the resident evil is definitely Mr. Tulkinghon ( Charles Dance), who is a lawyer (isn’t that surprise!). Heartless, opportunistic and manipulative – he uses his knowledge to twist people to his will.
Another intersting character is of Mr. Guppy (Burn Gorman), an intern at the law firm, who is quite instrumental in propelling the whole story forward. He also brings in a bit of humor to this otherwise “bleak” narrative.
There is a large cast of characters – who directly or symbolically help portray everything that is wrong with the English Chancery. One character that will be noticed above the rest is that of Ms Flite (Pauline Collins) with her caged birds that she will release on the day of the judgement.
Then there is Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), another minor beneficiary in the will, she is married to Sir Leicester Dedlock (Timothy West). Haughty, arrogant she is not exactly popular, but is her demeanour a mask for the secret that she harbors?
Bleak House has all of Dickens trademarks – cold , cruel London streets, interesting and slightly larger than life characters, family secrets, a ghost story and razor-sharp wit. Andrew Davies screenplay adaptation retains all the essence and I could make this out even if I had not read the novel. Dickens just spills from each scene of the series. Though at times I felt there was a certain “Austen-ish” feel to the whole narrative – with so many women, engagements and marriages.
The cast of this production was simply brilliant. Anne Martin as Esther is likeable and believable with an extremely expressive face, Gillan Anderson was brilliant as Lady Dedlock ( I couldn’t find the the Scully in her!) – her eyes doing most of her acting,
The art direction is satisfying – the mood of the series set up by the cold and squalor of London. One thing that I found annoying was the rapid cuts to a location accompanied by this weird “whoosh” sound making one think that were watching a horror movie instead of a period drama.
The series is a commentary on the inefficient judicial system of England at the turn of the century – where people are victims of the system that is meant to serve the arsitocrats, and literally go mad or die waiting for justice – as exemplified by the story of Gridly, Carstone and Jo. The other theme of the book deals with the divisive class system in England where station is everything and how one must keep up appearances.
Verdict : Highly recommended