Bleak House Review
Posted at 2:45 PM (PST) on Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bleak House

The popularity of British costume drama -- once such a hearty staple of public television but lately on the wane -- gets a super-duper shot in the arm with this latest BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House."

This isn't the first such production to show there was life in the old genre yet. George Eliot's "Middlemarch" in 1994 was trumpeted as accomplishing that feat, and several other fine productions followed suit.

But this latest series -- shot originally in half-hour installments like a soap opera -- succeeds in hooking you within minutes.

"Bleak House" premieres Sunday, Jan. 22, 9-11 p.m. EST, and concludes Sunday, Feb. 26, 9-11 p.m. EST on "Masterpiece Theatre." The intervening episodes on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, 12 and 19 run 9-10 p.m. EST (check local listings).

Have no fear that the faster-paced, edgy approach wreaks havoc on a literary classic. Nothing is rushed, and the essentials are as "traditional" as any purist would wish. The comforting appearances by costume drama stalwarts Ian Richardson, Charles Dance, Timothy West, Pauline Collins and others anchor the series solidly.

The source material, a real page-turner, is another plus. The novel provided "Masterpiece Theatre" with another winner when it aired its superb 1985 version with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott.

The plot concerns a long-running inheritance lawsuit -- Jarndyce v. Jarndyce -- and there are various claimants, any one of whom stands to come into a vast fortune if the suit is decided in his or her favor.

Among the colorful characters, there's the patrician Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), married to the fusty Sir Leicester (West), whose interests are represented by hard-nosed attorney Tulkinghorn (Dance). There are two innocent lovers, Ada (Carey Mulligan) and Richard (Patrick Kennedy), in the care of John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), who has hired a good-hearted orphan, Esther Summerson (an effortlessly empathetic Anna Maxwell Martin), to be Ada's companion.

There's also an opium-addicted legal copyist (John Lynch), who goes by the name Nemo ("no man" in Latin) and who is discovered dead early in the story. We learn he had a mysterious connection to Lady Dedlock, now understandably frantic to keep their relationship hidden.

The stage is set for a spellbinding story with many twists and revelations.

The cast perfectly brings Dickens' richly textured gallery to life. "X-Files" star Anderson, who showed herself adept in costume drama in the film "The House of Mirth" a few years back, proves her period mettle once again. There's Nathaniel Parker as John Jarndyce's crony Harold Skimpole; comedian Johnny Vegas as a junk man who purloins some incriminating letters; Burn Gorman as Guppy, who pursues Esther -- each quite wonderful. And based on the first two hours screened, Dance's performance looks to be one of the best things he's done.

Much of the credit must go the ace screenwriter Andrew Davies, a master adapter of the classics ("Middlemarch" was his), and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White. This is the sort of masterful rethinking that Roman Polanski might have applied to his otherwise meritorious "Oliver Twist."

The series was a great hit in England when it ran this past fall, and if you're looking for quality drama, "Bleak House" makes grade-A appointment viewing for older adolescents and up, as engrossing as a season of "C.S.I." -- and probably better for you, too!

Thanks, xfrgg!