There are many authors I haven’t yet read extensively, chief among them Charles Dickens, by curiosity built up from years of watching movie adaptations of his works. “Bleak House”, featuring Gillian Anderson light years from Dana Scully, inspires a lusty desire to see how Dickens used the English language, beyond what’s seen here. There are so many characters to like, dislike, and be ambivalent about. The lawyer Tulkinghorn (the eminent Charles Dance, who intricately knows what causes unease when people watch a despicable character) is quietly mean, menacing, and when he comes upon a potential scandal that may do harm to Sir Leicester Dedlock (Timothy West), he gets the information he wants because he can, by his fearful reputation in the slums of London.
Nearly everyone seen here are involved with at least one of the three main characters, though it should not be thought that Anna Maxwell Martin (as the luminous Esther Summerson), Carey Mulligan (as Ada Clare), and Patrick Kennedy (as Richard Carstone) are the major leads. In fact, the opening titles to each part of “Bleak House” merely introduce all the names alphabetically. It’s appropriate because of all the rich characters you’ll find, and screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, make this so memorable, that there’s immediately a twinge of regret when it’s all over. It literally takes time to adjust.
The scandal Tulkinghorn unearths, comes in the middle of the series, begun by Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a slow-moving case in the 19th century Chancery courts. In the middle of Jarndyce and Jarndyce are Ada and Richard, two orphans who were wards of the court but are entrusted to the care of John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson) as the case is gradually worked on, and it takes so long that the characters go through more in their lives than any lawyer, any judge is likely to go through emotionally, by working in the Chancery courts. Esther Summerson, a dear friend to Ada, is also approved by the judge to live with Jarndyce as well and eventually becomes the housekeeper of Bleak House which is far more pleasant than what the streets of London are home to, such as Jo (Harry Eden), a ragged young boy who delivers messages and things for Mr. Snagsby (Sean McGinley), in charge of a bevy of law-writers who transcribe papers for him. One of the writers is Captain Hawdon, at the time known as “Nemo”, Latin for “nobody”, since no one really knows him, and letters addressed to him become an obsession within the story.
Don’t let “19th century” scare you from this lavish, carefully-woven production, nor be worried about it being a costume drama because in a sense it is, but everything’s in the details, like directors Chadwick and White favoring handheld cameras, and the beginning of some scenes seemingly imitating the way “24” continues its scenes, albeit without the split-screens, but with a louder ticking sound. “Bleak House” also moves characters from minors to majors and back. The obese, booze-ridden landlord Krook (Johnny Vegas) is constantly besotted by spirits that Guppy (Burn Gorman), working for the law firm Kenge & Carboys, brings him in the hopes that he’ll soon release his grip on the mystery letters tied together with a pink ribbon. Guppy also pines for Esther, though judging from his bumbling attempts to be an upstanding man when he speaks to her, there’s no chance. Miss Flite (Pauline Collins) keeps birds in her upstairs apartment in Krook’s tenement, with names like Hope, Waste, and Want. She keeps talking about the Day of Judgment, which is one of the surprises of the series. Flite, aptly named because of her birds (in fact, in thinking about names like “Krook”, “Skimpole”, and “Summerson”, it seems that Dickens had the talent of clueing us into the nature of certain characters, even as we are just being introduced to them), would seem like a religious fanatic, but is far from it.
Laced throughout the all too brief series (unfortunately, it had to end because of there being only one book to adapt) is love, hate, rage, anger, happiness, sadness, which all make for good drama if handled right. And so it is. Richard and Ada fall in love, which causes tension when Mr. Jarndyce is reluctant to give his consent to the engagement, believing them too young to consider marriage. Mr. Smallweed (Philip Davis with the most yellow set of teeth ever installed for any role)—carted about in a portable chair, always barking at his granddaughter, “Shake me up, Judy!” in order to stretch without getting up—fits his name because despite his petulant anger, he at first doesn’t have much success in selling the letters to anyone for a sizable financial sum. There is also much illness, with Esther getting smallpox and Jo becoming another major achievement for this production, with a stunning makeup job in which he looks sicker than anyone else has in plays, TV shows, or movies. Mr. Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker), the proper polar opposite to Tulkinghorn, has no feelings for humanity. He constantly begs off any questions about family life by saying that he’s merely a child, he doesn’t understand much. He makes anyone want to knock him down harshly, but it could only be imagined that he’d get up, unscathed, still the same man. Just like Tulkinghorn, he is a barometer with which to judge the other characters and compared to him, Esther and the others are nobler, not that they have any reason to be compared.
Then there is the suspense. Mr. Jarndyce, having been Esther’s guardian for so many years, falls in love with her, wanting her to become his wife, but doesn’t know how and when to tell her. When will he tell her? When can this knot in our stomachs get smaller? And as these many stories go on, Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), the emotionally removed wife of Sir Leicester, becomes much more prominent, especially when a secret is revealed that she believes would destroy Sir Leicester, but considering the state of London and how isolated they seem and how small a social circle they maintain (nearly nobody anyway, besides a continuous beef that their neighbor Boythorn (Warren Clarke) has with them), it’s hard to imagine who would be affected outside of the immediate parties involved. The moment where the secret comes out, when Lady Dedlock sits her daughter down to tell her that she’s her mother, Anderson is so affecting, as well as Dedlock’s daughter, that it’s wrenching and heartbreaking, even with the damned violins and other instruments that are determined to make you feel something, even if the strings break in mid-performance. I suppose dramatic music might be one of the staples of the major British dramas, of which “Bleak House” has become one of the top ones, but it’s still disconcerting, especially with how easy it is to be taken by all the performances, without musical assistance.
In later episodes, director White prefers occasional zoom shots to add to the immediacy of scenes, and ends the series on notes both expected and unexpected, if one hasn’t read “Bleak House”, like me. But after 465 minutes of pure involvement in watching every character, every scene, feeling every emotion that’s offered, I’ve got to read the book. It’s a rare feeling. These performances can be brought to life once more through Dickens’ words. This is genuine drama lifted to honorable heights.