Hollywood Reporter Review of Bleak House
Posted at 3:09 PM (PST) on Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Hollywood Reporter
By Laurence Vittes
January 20, 2006

Bottom line: An ambitious BBC production team has created a major Dickens triumph for "Masterpiece Theatre."
9-11 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 22

The BBC's third attempt at the sprawling Dickens novel is its best, capturing with riveting tension and passionate urgency a clash between different ways of life, where ambition, physical beauty and moral squalor play out against a background of legal gridlock and murder to create a high-powered thriller.

Widely discussed in the U.K. -- where it was broadcast as a twice-weekly series of half-hour episodes -- for being the leading edge of an important attempt to popularize the classics and broaden viewer demographics (read: reach a younger audience), Andrew Davies' new adaptation has been the subject of scholarly analyses and critical reviews debating the merits of dumbing down a timeless work of art as if it were a soap opera.

Arriving in the U.S. under the "Masterpiece Theatre" aegis, where its eight hours will be shown over six successive Sunday evenings, Davies and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanne White see to it that the adaptation's story line, heavily laced with romance and intrigue not to mention cliffhanging endings to the individual episodes, rightly exploits Dickens' genius at creating a stream of fascinating characters, many of them the young and vulnerable type who typically appeal to younger viewers.

Although due credit must be given to the many magnificent actors who populate this very liberally populated story, it would be unfair not to single out Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, on whose shoulders the story inevitably rests. Hers is a difficult part, since Esther possesses neither great beauty nor great charm, but as she grows and discovers the roots of her history, and those of her fellows, she takes the story convincingly with her.

If there is any criticism to be made, it is that the opening half-hour plunges the unsuspecting viewer into an unfamiliar foreign world of soot and grime and foul deeds and motives. Once settled in, however, this is very addictive television, indeed.