Dickens Done Right

As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, you could curl up with a good fat book, like Charles Dickens's Bleak House. The Bantam Classic version is only 818 pages. Or you could rent the 2005 TV adaptation co-produced by the BBC, WGBH Boston, and a company called Deep Indigo. It's only six hours or so, and after the first, you will be hooked.

Full confession: before this Bleak House, I had never seen a Dickens adaptation that I truly admired. They were all too shallow and predictable, with too many tiresome caricatures who weren't really funny. Plus a treacly, Merrie Olde England look that works better in Thomas Kinkade paintings.

How does this series avoid all that? By extending the emotional range in both directions, so that the gloom and cruelty of Dickens's world feels truly disturbing, and warmth and light of justice and kindness truly a relief. This is no mean accomplishment, because while it's easy to find villains these days, it's hard to find characters as convincingly good as Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin) and her guardian, John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson).

I guess what I'm saying is that this series does not treat Dickens as a quaint old-fashioned moralist best suited to high school English classes. It brings out his brilliance at black comedy, in characters like Smallweed, the blood-sucking moneylender who goes about in a sedan chair complaining about his aching bones. Smallweed is played so brilliantly by Phil Davis, I looked forward to his every entrance and to watching those yellow rat's teeth chew up the scenery.

And beyond the comic, this adaptation makes room for sorrow. Yes, there is a happy ending, but only after several lives have come to bitter ends. Like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the multi-generational law case at its heart, the plot closes with a perfect tradeoff. The characters lose exactly the amount they hoped to gain. For us readers and viewers, though, it is all gain.

October 7, 2007 7:52 PM | | Comments (2)



Your blog post gave me the push I needed to finally get around to renting this. I was happy to find I enjoyed it just as much as you did. What fantastic casting! I'd like to seek out more things with Anna Maxwell Martin in them. It's nice to be blown away by an unfamiliar performer.

No way! While I almost always appreciate your reveiws and general thoughts on movies, I am aghast that you commend this version of Bleak House. Its frenetic editing and inane sound effects (or whatever accompanied scene changes) were just about more than I could stand. It was if the director was straight from music videos or the worst of the faux-innovative aspects of American network TV. Eech. Do you not really like period dramas?


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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on October 7, 2007 7:52 PM.

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