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Bleak House

CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies

1985, 2005

Bleak House serial coverFirst serial, 1852
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1852–1853 as twenty-part serial with illustrations by Phiz

Publication in book form

Literature form

Literary, crime, mystery

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 166,000 words

Scene from Bleak House (2005)
Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, Esther and Mr. Skimpole hear Jo's tale of woe in 2005's BBC serial of Bleak House.

At the cold, bleak centre

Bleak House (2005): Television mini-series, approx. eight hours; directors Justin Chadwick, Susanna White; writer Andrew Davies; featuring Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Carey Mulligan, Patrick Kennedy, Alun Armstrong, Phil Davis, Richard Harrington, Nathaniel Parker, Burn Gorman, Hugo Speer

The best example of how a modern filmmaker can condense, reform and otherwise adapt the Bleak House story—while maintaining the depth and emotional impact of the best aspects of the original novel—may be the 2005 serial created for the BBC.

It's BBC's third and longest adaptation of the novel. This condensation clocks in at about eight hours—initially presented in fifteen episodes. It's still a massive and detailed production. But the direction, staging and stellar acting keep viewers riveted to the human story over several days or weeks.

Bleak House (2005) scene
Devious lawyer Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance) suspects Lady Dedlock
(Gillian Anderson) has a scandalous secret.

Heading the cast of mainly British theatrical and cinematic veterans is that great purveyor of villains, Charles Dance (perhaps best known for his roles as evil doers in Game of Thrones and the recent And Then There Were None). As scheming lawyer Tulkinghorn who roots out Lady Dedlock's scandalous past, he's so coldly effective that when the character is dispatched we are both pleased to see him get his just desserts and sorry to lose his malevolent presence for the rest of the story.

But at the still centre of Bleak House is the film's other revelation, Gillian Anderson. Since coming to world attention as Agent Scully on The X-Files in the 1990s, the British-American Anderson has carved out a career as a respected serious actor. As Lady Dedlock, she adopts a minimalist style displaying the icy demeanor that suits the character's Dickensian name, but moving the audience through stages of disdain, mystery and ultimately hard-won sympathy.

Anna Maxwell Martin as the lead character Esther Summerson, impoverished governess to the Jarndyces, and Dennis Lawson as her benevolent employer are both among the many actors who have been lauded for helping bring to life the personal stories behind the dry court case.

Trailer for BBC series of Charles Dickens's Bleak House in 2005.

The drama and relationships among them are handled very well with subtlety and nuance without bogging down in the legal and financial details that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm all sparks of humanity in the tale.

The sense of mystery—several mysteries actually—is kept up throughout this Bleak House, helped by the deep-toned, high-definition camera work, to keep viewers engaged and guessing throughout.

One hesitates to say such a story as Dickens's most painstakingly bleak novel could be entertaining, but in this adaptation it is. Both dark and enlightening.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies

1985, 2005

See also:

Oliver Twist

David Copperfield

Great Expectations

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Bleak House

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