Bleak House
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $49.99 // May 5, 2009
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted May 10, 2009
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Note: This review is based on a pre-release "screener" and may or may not reflect the final retail version of this title. If a retail version of this title is made available, I will update the review at that time.

The Movie:
It was the best of Dickens miniseries, it was the worst of Dickens miniseries, it was a miniseries of performance wisdom with the direction of foolishness, it was--what's that you say? Why am I paraphrasing A Tale of Two Cities' iconic opening in a review of Bleak House? Simple. No one remembers the opening of Bleak House. This 2006 British-American coproduction offers one of the most hallucinatory, otherworldly adaptations of a Dickens novel ever, filled with magnificent performances, and some of the most tarted up "stupid director" tricks imaginable, the kind I took to task in the more recent John Adams. When you have source material like Dickens, and a stellar cast that is doing absolutely incredible work, why then is it necessary to fill each moment with incessant whip pans, jiggly hand-held cameras, ridiculous zooms to nowhere, and their ill begotten ilk? Is this really what the directorial craft has come down to at the dawn of the 21st century? Whatever happened to simple camera placement that allowed the story to unfold without always drawing (usually unwanted) attention to itself?

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.

The Blu-ray

There are some fairly prevalent issues with Bleak House's VC-1 1.78:1 transfer, including quite a bit of flicker, line shimmer and even some occasional edge enhancement. That said, despite having large swaths of the miniseries bathed in blue light, colors are strong and well saturated, and overall detail is very sharp and well defined.

Bleak House offers two soundtrack options, a linear PCM 2.0, and a kind of fun descriptive track that allows virtually all of the dialogue through while bridging purely visual scenes with descriptive narration. It's actually kind of fun to watch the descriptive version, as you get occasional gleanings of character relationships that aren't right there on the screen. The linear PCM 2.0 is just fine, if not very noteworthy. Dialogue is very clear if not very directional, and the occasional underscore is reproduced just fine. English subtitles are available.

Three interview segments, one per each BD in the set, are included, with Anderson (a British accent!--who knew?), Dance and Denis Lawson, who portrays John Jardyce, one of the older generations involved in the long running probate case. A photo gallery is also included on BD 3.

Final Thoughts:
Bleak House has an awful lot going for it--a superb, complex source novel, the unmistakably literate adaptative skills of Andrew Davies, and a host of incredible performances. It's all brought down repeatedly to its knees by silly direction that wants to show off every step of the way. What a shame, and what a lost opportunity. For the story and performances, though, you could do worse than to Rent it.

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