People have a lot of pre-conceived notions about mini-series adapted from classic novels. These notions usually contain words like "slow," "stuffy" and "stagey." The BBC's 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House demolishes them all.
Bleak House is a fast-paced tumble over a mosaic of strong characters and vivid locations. It touches on romance, comedy, mystery, tragedy and melodrama and does justice to each. According to the new DVD's episode one audio commentary, there are more than 40 principal parts and 90 speaking roles, yet it's easy to keep track of each of them thanks to the excellent cast and the juggling act that is Andrew Davies' screenplay.
Davies, who penned BBC's 1995 Pride and Predjudice series, has earned a reputation as a master of these adaptations. He isn't afraid to alter structure and characters to fit the medium, yet makes use of the long format to fully explore Dickens' characters with and approach richness present in the original novel. Certain subplots at times feel as if they're moving toward their conclusions a little too conveniently, but even when you can see the wheels turning, it's very entertaining.
And that's great news for the actors, who rise to the material. Anna Maxwell Martin stars as Esther Summerson, who serves as a sort of link between the interlocking storylines. As the series opens, she travels to Bleak House with Ada (Carey Mulligan) and Richard (Patrick Kennedy), two cousins who are maybe a bit more amorous than would be acceptable in our modern times.
The cousins have a part in the case of Jarndyce V. Jarndyce, an inheritance dispute passed down through generations due to a series of unclear wills. Bleak House's owner, John Jarndyce, wants no part of these legal proceedings because the case has ruined too many of his loved ones, so becomes Ada and Richard's guardian to help guide them through. Esther was raised by a mean woman who told her she was shameful and evil but never explained where she came from, and wants to discover the truth of her past.
The series' villains are especially noteworthy. Charles Dance is sinisterly calculating as Mr. Tulkinghorn, the ruthless lawyer who embarks on an unrequested investigation of his client Sir Dedlock's (Timothy West) wife, Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson). The series smartly reveals Lady Dedlock's past and how it relates to the other characters without any expository dialogue to spell it out, saving that for an emotional scene between two characters. Another great villain, Philip Davis hits a more comedic note as the treacherous money-lender Smallweed, a decrepit chair-bound old man who takes much joy in his misdeeds. Most memorable are his hilarious requests to his granddaugher to "shake me up!" when he's uncomfortable in his chair.
This summary doesn't begin to describe the myriad of rich characters, from street kids to esteemed lords, who appear in each episode. Burn Gorman stands out as Guppy, a scrawny legal clerk who's always trying to make himself seem more important than he is, and who has eyes on Esther. Hugo Speer has a great character arc later in the run of the series as Sergeant George, a poor but proud former military man who crosses paths with Tulkinghorn, Dedlock and Smallweed.
The show consists of one hour-long episode that sets up many of the main plot threads, followed by 14 half-hour episodes. The 30-minute length works well when you don't have time for an hour-long or 45-minute drama. But it all moves so fast that it's hard to watch only one per sitting.
While the fast pace is exciting and addictive, it occasionally hinders emotional impact. In the closing episodes, when we reach several resolutions that the series has been pushing towards, some of them go by so fast that we hardly have time to absorb them.
Directors Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), who helmed the first two-thirds of the show, and Susanna White (Generation Kill), who handled the last third, display energetic, lively filmmaking. On occasion, however, it feels as if they're trying to hard to be modern. The transitions go over the top at times, with flash pans and zoom cuts setting the stage. The sound effect that accompanies each edit would be more at home accompanying a Lost flashback, but Lost's transitions call much less attention to themselves. I understand the desire to signal movement from one story to another, but why oh why did the filmmakers decide to play the sound effect three or four times in a row in some transitions? I wasn't surprised when, in the audio commentary, Chadwick mentioned Spy Games as part of the inspiration for them. That's what happens when you turn to Tony Scott for guidance, folks.
But these minor niggles don't detract from an immensely engrossing, addictive eight hours of entertainment. It's hard to say goodbye to the characters that you've come to know so well. But it's not hard to recommend Bleak House.
The DVD presents a handsome anamorphic 16x9 picture. (According to some product descriptions, the previous edition was in 1.66:1, but further research suggests that both releases are 16x9.) Certain scenes in the first episode felt too yellow at first glance and occasionally the HD camera catches some harsh light, but overall the shadows and colors reflect the mood of the scenes. The details are strong, the picture crisp, and the encode artifact-free.
The disc's menu navigation allows you to play all the episodes at once (as one timeline with each chapter, as opposed to different titles), or individually. Be warned, however, that if you choose the latter route, you'll go directly into the episode's scene selection, which may contain spoilers.
Aforementioned silly sound effects notwithstanding, the mix is well balanced with good separation (especially considering the sound-recording problems discussed in the commentary tracks). There were a few moments when I had a hard time deciphering the dialogue, but that was due to less familiar accents. The English subtitles do come in handy in those cases. A surround track apparently wasn't created when the show aired, and while it would be nice, the material by no means demands it.
The extensive interviews with Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance and Denis Lawson run around 15 to 20 minutes each. While each disc has an interview, those who haven't read the book and want to avoid spoilers should wait to watch them until after they complete the series.
Anderson describes how the project wooed her, even though she'd vowed to avoid television after a long run on The X-Files. Denis Lawson talks about how he needed a backstory in order to understand his character, whereas Dance rubbishes that kind of process, saying he made a point not to look for anything redeemable in Tulkinghorn, and he admires actors who can turn their characters on and off at will.
Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark and writer Andrew Davies appear on all three audio commentary tracks (activated in the set-up menu, so it's easy to miss), and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White join them on their respective episodes (the hour-long first episode for Chadwick and the first and last episodes of disc three for White). While the tracks are a tad repetitive, the participants offer some interesting insights into the adaptation process, and the motivation behind changes in story structure and characters. The process of making such an ambitious project on a limited budget is one of the most enlightening parts. For example, it turns out that a single, very large house was used for most of the series' interiors.
Last and least, the photo gallery features two minutes and 10 seconds worth of behind-the scenes photos, dissolved in and out of each other every four or five seconds.
In the not-so-special features department, each disc opens with skippable ads for other BBC mini-series on DVD and (in disc one) an amusing ad for BBC America.
If you don't already own Bleak House, this is the edition to get. If you do, the extras may not be worth the double-dip unless you're a big fan.