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Bleak House

Director: Justin Chadwick, Susanna White
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Denis Lawson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Carey Mulligan, Patrick Kennedy

(BBC; US DVD: 5 May 2009)

The BBC’s latest adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, Bleak House, is dark, voluptuous, and superbly cast.Gillian Anderson spearheads a group of talented British actors, some well established, and some completely fresh-faced, in a quality soap-opera style reproduction that will draw new fans to Dickens adaptations. 


Some of the newcomers include Anna Maxwell Martin, who portrays the mysterious Esther Summerson. Beloved by everyone who meets her, Esther exudes a calm practicality and unruffled manner that immediately endears her to some of Dickens’ more commonly frenetic personality types.


Ada Clare and Richard Carstone are played by Carey Mulligan and Patrick Kennedy respectively, as the often bemused, orphaned cousins who are the wards in the infamous case of Jarndyce & Jarndyce. Burn Gorman puts in a great performance as the bizarre, sniveling little law clerk, Guppy, who takes a shine to Esther and invents his own back story in his head as to why she has been brought to Bleak House by Jarndyce.


As Lady Dedlock, Anderson comes up against the formidable Mr. Tulkinghorn, played with fiendish menace by Charles Dance. Tulkinghorn’s cruel coldheartedness seems well matched to Anderson’s cool portrayal of a beautiful noblewoman with a dark secret in her mysterious past, but Lady Dedlock has a great deal of emotion seething behind her calm front, while Tulkinghorn’s icy demeanor never thaws.


The series has now been released as a Blu-ray Special Edition set, and if you have the ability to play the format, it is well worth the investment. The rich jewel-toned colors and obsessive lighting efforts are shown off especially well in Blu-Ray. The camera seems constantly aware of how to best catch the actors in various lighting situations, highlighting a profile, a gesture, a change in expression, whether the scene is lit by a window, a candle, or even the open sky.


The palette of Bleak House is dark, though not bleak, and the color scheme has been carefully considered. Tulkinghorn’s law offices are always shown in neutral dark browns, while the Chesney Wold home of Lord and Lady Dedlock is portrayed as draped in dark watery blues and sea greens. Lady Dedlock’s gowns tend toward rich marine or deep olive shades, settling off Anderson’s complexion admirably. Meanwhile, Bleak House itself, the home of John Jarndyce (played by Denis Lawson), contains warmer burgundy and mahogany shades, belying the name and making Jarndyce’s home seem very pleasant indeed.


Special features in this edition include the standard sort of director’s chatter over the first episode, a collection of still photos from on set, and three excellent interviews with several of the biggest stars in the production, Anderson, Dance and Lawson. One interview has been allocated to each of the three discs, so that the viewer can choose to watch them piecemeal rather than all at once on a dedicated special features disc.


The interviews are unusual in that the questions and interviewer have been completely removed; each actor seems to be simply musing about different aspects of their involvement with the production. Varying levels of close ups by the camera remind the viewer once again that this is a high quality Blu-Ray format. 


Anderson dwells on her hesitance to get involved with another TV production, and mentions that she wasn’t even willing to read Andrew Davies’ script because she was worried she’d love it and then would feel she had to play Lady Dedlock. After a bit of arm-twisting and some reading on her part, her premonition turned out to be spot on. And Bleak House is all the better for Anderson’s excellent performance.


Dance waxes eloquent about feeling that Tulkinghorn may just be the most sinister character Dickens ever created. Dance remarks about the care taken to dress Tulkinghorn in dark, grim colors, and the need to get inside the head of such a dedicated and serious man who seemed to lack some essence of humanity within his character. Watching the amicable actor talk about his role, it is hard to imagine him as the soulless lawyer in the series, but he makes that transformation seemingly effortlessly.


Denis Lawson gives a great interview as well, talking about how much he enjoyed working with the young actors who are his usual companions throughout many of his scenes, and remembering his start in the acting industry. Lawson, a Scot, admits to having to tone his accent down and ‘sound English’ to get many parts in his youth. Now that he is well established he refuses to take a part that forces him to conceal his background, though to be involved in Bleak House he did make an exception.


The BBC’s Bleak House adaptation is a must-have for any Dickens afficionado. If you have the ability to play it in the Blu-Ray format, this special edition set is well worth the purchase, and the extra features, though sparse, are of high quality.

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Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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