's Review of Bleak House
Posted at 3:23 PM (PST) on Thursday, January 19, 2006

Vivid Visit to Dickens's 'Bleak House' on PBS
By Dave Shiflett

Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Bleak is beautiful, at least in Masterpiece Theater's presentation of Charles Dickens's ``Bleak House,'' which makes high art of a ruinous lawsuit.

Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, the result of a rich man writing multiple wills, has been in court for several generations, producing madness, suicide and massive legal fees. Screenwriter Andrew Davies (``Pride and Prejudice'') does a masterful job compressing the sprawling story into an eight-hour miniseries.

In Sunday night's two-hour opener, orphan Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan) and Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy) arrive at Bleak House, a magnificent pile of bricks large enough to host most of us and our 40 closest friends.

The house is overseen by John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), a warmhearted gent who occasionally retires to a room he calls the ``Growlery'' to let off steam; these days he'd probably have a blog, though here he confines his audience to Esther.

'Bored to Death'

Martin is not a flawless beauty -- like several other characters a facial growth or two is in evidence -- yet she has a deeply dignified character. She also bears a burden: ``Your mother is your disgrace and you hers,'' a scolding hag tells her at show's start. Her desire to learn her mother's identity is ever on her mind.

Even more intriguing is Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), a pale, haunted woman who looks as if she hasn't hosted a red corpuscle in decades. Although she professes to be "bored to death with my life,'' she takes a sudden interest in learning the identity of a court-document copyist whose handwriting she recognizes. This alerts family lawyer Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance) that something is up; he is pitiless in his pursuit of this mystery.

The episodes, which air each Sunday through Feb. 26, are meant to imitate the page-turning nature of the original work, which was serialized in 1852-53. Davies succeeds grandly. He, of course, had much to work with: a great plot and some of Dickens's most memorable characters.

Malevolent Stalker

Tulkinghorn is a ferocious lawyer whose family tree seems to have been populated by at least one pair of tarantulas. His pursuit of the copyist, a former soldier and current opium addict called Nemo (John Lynch), will eventually reveal a dark secret.

Krook (Johnny Vegas), the aptly named proprietor at Nemo's slum dwelling, is a half whisker from a heart attack, a half swallow from cirrhosis, and a full-time candidate for imprisonment. His theft of Nemo's secret letters is crucial to the plot's development.

Guppy (Burn Gorman), who deeply desires the hand (among other things) of Esther, starts out respectable enough, but soon becomes a stalker with a malevolent glint to his eye. Harold Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker), one of English literature's premier leeches, comes off as a parasite without equal.

"Possessions are nothing to me,'' he chirps while downing yet another load of free chow, compliments of John Jarndyce.

"I have no aptitude for work,'' he adds. Skimpole does admit to being a doctor ``for a time,'' which one suspects resulted in a fatality or two.

Mud Urchins

Then there's Mrs. Jellyby (Liza Tarbuck), the do-gooder whose compassion does not extend to her own children; they look as if they just climbed out of a dumpster. Her obsession with saving Africa blinds her to her children's simplest needs.

"No pee pee, not on any account,'' bellows this dumpling of a woman, who appears to consume enough victuals to feed a medium-sized village. "Mama is busy!''

Indeed, there are many blimps in this massive production, which boasts 80 speaking parts, along with first-rate set scenes, especially forays into the slums. The street urchins look as if they rose from the mud or at best house themselves in chimneys. The sense of bottomless despair is as thick as the ever-present fog.

In one tenement we find a man who had "been drunk three days'' and sobered up only because he ran out of money; he has beaten his wife, whose child dies in her arms. Elsewhere in this cauldron of hopelessness, three children try desperately to stay out of the orphanages Dickens railed against in other works; we are reminded that his final act on earth was said to have been the shedding of a massive tear.

One assumes the great author would be pleased with this handling of what many consider to be his best book. Viewers will have a difficult time not getting hooked early; some may remember that one character departs the drama in the most notable case of "spontaneous combustion'' in all of literature.

A brilliant exit in a brilliant work.