Bleak House is probably one of the lesser known of Dickens' novels, and it is certainly one of the more gargantuan ones, with an incredible array of characters that hew true to Dickens' penchant for introducing them and then slowly, methodically revealing relationships between them. Dickens also excelled at something akin to surprise twists, often involving supposedly minor characters introduced early in the proceedings that then pop up toward the end in unexpected ways. It's all the more remarkable when one considers the fact that most of these lengthy Dickens novels, Bleak House included, were introduced to the British reading public as serials, published in weekly installments. That would mean that readers either needed to have phenomenal memories, or be required to keep all past issues containing the serial so that they could go back and double check characters once the denouement was approaching. My wife in fact just recently reread A Tale of Two Cities and was thinking she had kept absolute track of all characters until a putatively minor person magically ended up holding major plot elements in their hand toward the end of the story. She confided in me that she had once told her brother, who was reading Great Expectations, "It's just easiest to write down every character and the page number they're introduced on as you go--you never know who you're going to need to look up later."
How, then, to account for all of these myriad characters and their relationships in a television adaptation? The redoubtable Andrew Davies, who has made a career out of such adaptations, does an absolutely splendid job in this regard, spending the first several episodes introducing character after character in brief snippets that immediately sum up some cogent aspect to both their inner lives and their function in the story. It's interesting that Bleak House was marketed to the Brits as something of a soap opera, and was filmed in 15 half hour episodes, making its story arc a bit more digestable in these smaller portions.
It's pretty impossible to sum up Bleak House's plot effectively, other than to say that Dickens takes one of his favorite tropes, the forlorn orphan, and doubles (some would say triples) it, by having the story revolve around two hopeful heirs to an estate that has been in the British version of probate for generations. Attending these two heirs is the actual focus of much of the series, Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin, in an amazing performance), a girl who's supposedly only along for the ride but who turns out to be the crux around which several characters revolve. The cast is made up of an amazing array of talent, including a wonderfully cast against type Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, an aristocrat in a stifling marriage who is of course hiding a secret that involves at least two other major characters. (In a side note, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I watched one of the extra features, an interview with Anderson, and heard her speaking in a very proper British accent. I had no idea that Dana Scully, with that flat Midwestern idiolect of hers, had, though born in America, actually been raised in England for much of her life, evidently picking up their beautiful enunciation along the way). Charles Dance also has an understated field day with one of the most malevolently evil characters in all of Dickens, Mr. Tulkinghorn, a barrister with a few secrets of his own who is playing the competing parties in the long drawn out lawsuit like pawns in a multi-generational game of chess. The entire cast is stellar, however, and it's really impossible to effectively single out just a few--each and every performance is pitch perfect and help to make the miniseries' directorial excesses at least a bit more palatable.
Bleak House absolutely excels in recreating the seedy, smarmy London of the times, with people wracked by various pestilences, physical and moral. The entire miniseries seems knit out of a horrible nightmare, filmed in various shades of blue that give it an otherworldly quality. The physical production is also quite sumptuous, if eerily decrepit at times, with beautiful sets and costumes helping to bring Dickens' London completely to life.
Where Bleak House grates, and completely needlessly so, is with the incredibly stupid directorial choices. Justin Chadwick and Susanna White have firm hand on the acting and physical production side of things, but this absolutely unconscionable decision to "modernize" things by including nonstop camera tricks is just nauseating to me (actually literally at times--there's so much camera movement you need a motion sickness tablet). What is the point? Is it to heighten the hallucinatory quality of the piece? If so, it's a very "bad trip" indeed. Even relatively static shots are hampered by quick cutting. What is the harm with letting a camera linger on a character for more than a couple of seconds, perhaps even actually recording a reaction shot? I was pleasantly surprised when I complained about this very same issue in John Adams and received quite a few emails thanking me for my complaints, so I know I'm not the only one feeling this way about these tricks--and that's really all they are. Could you imagine someone like Wyler, or Hawks, or even a journeyman like Pevney or Frankenheimer pulling this kind of b.s.? It does nothing other than call attention to itself. Fine, Chadwick and White, you've drawn attention to yourselves and we now know exactly whom to blame for Bleak House's failings.