Bleak House

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If the film is often a novella, the TV mini-series is often the full-fat 600-pager, with Charles Dickens right up at the top of the list when it comes to cliffhanger endings to the week’s proceedings – the stories were often written for serialisation, Bleak House having appeared in 20 weekly editions of 32 pages plus illustrations. The BBC have something of a lock on Dickens, but their productions can be a bit dusty, more focused on the clothes than the action. But not this Bleak House. This 2005 outing is their best Dickens since 1994’s Martin Chuzzlewit and has the edge on its previous Bleak House, made in 1985 and starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott.

It is a brooding, majestic production, with depth and breadth at every level. The plot centres on the workings of the chancery court, and in particular the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, a decision on which has dragged down through the decades. A generation before Kafka had worked up his own vision of byzantine and murky (in)justice there was Dickens before him, painting a picture of people held in stasis for their entire lives while a court decides who is to be the beneficiary of a will.

Casting is again the secret of this one’s success, with two central performances by an astonishing Gillian Anderson as the fragile Lady Dedlock and a majestically nasty Charles Dance as malicious lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn (though why use adjectives to describe his character when Dickens has done it with a name). Anna Maxwell Martin is its heroine, the plucky Esther, and she is as inspired piece of casting, as is Carey Mulligan, who had only made her professional acting debut the year before.

The cast list is rock solid all the way down but holds a few surprises, the names Liza Tarbuck, Johnny Vegas, Catherine Tate and Alistair McGowan being best known in the UK for being amiable light entertainers rather than actors. Well, they amiably play the comedy grotesque here in an adaptation full of larger than life characters, fuelled by a plot that’s reality run through a distorting lens, speaking lines (adapted by safe pair of hands Andrew Davies) that’s 50 per cent gothic exaggeration, 50 per cent stiletto – Dickens’s own upbringing had been ruined when his father was thrown into a debtors prison, so he had little affection for the workings of the legal system, which is the real villain of this piece.

On a different tack entirely, this was the BBC’s first drama series to be shot in hi-def, so its looks are stiletto-sharp too.

Bleak House – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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