Top critical review
How (Almost) To Ruin A Dickens Classic
July 14, 2019
Let's be clear about all that is fine here. Although it is a long, hard slog, Dickens's "Bleak House" is one of his best novels. Its adaptation by Andrew Davies ("Pride and Prejudice," "Little Doritt," "House of Cards" [U.K.], among many other teleplays) is a magnificent compression of a huge novel. The acting is uniformly superlative; among many others, Anna Maxwell Martin's Esther Summerson, Charles Dance's Tulkinghorn, Denis Lawson's John Jarndyce, and Gillian Anderson's Lady Dedlock are achingly fine. The DVD/Blu-ray interviews with Anderson, Lawson, and Dance are fascinating. The production values are excellent—cinematography, set design, costumes, and so forth—with a conspicuous exception: the lack of a proper London fog. As anyone who has read the novel knows, a dense fog sets and sustains Dickens's mood as an apt metaphor for the all but impenetrable case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has been slouching in Chancery for generations. How much would it have set back the Beeb to haul in some blocks of dry ice?
The common brief against both the series and its literary ancestor is that they are melodramatic soap opera. I would return a verdict of guilty as charged—and utterly irrelevant. Dickens himself was soap-operatic. If it's well done, I'll watch a good soap. With actors like these, and a script this intelligent and faithful to its source, it doesn't get better.
No. The miscreants in this production are its producers, principally Nigel Stafford-Clark, who could have sacked director Justin Chadwick (in early episodes) and Susanna White (in later ones) after viewing the first days' rushes—or, to be fair, after a first month's rough cut. The last time I can remember being subjected to so many zoom-ins, zoom-outs, swish-pans (replete with percussive "whooshes"), jump-cuts (cue more whooshes), and fish-eye lenses was in a theater watching Baz Luhrman's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001). Its visuals made me so nauseous that I had to leave the theater. On my much smaller screen, Chadwick and White's "Look, Mum: I'm Directing!" overkill doesn't sicken me, but it grates. Over fifteen hours that's a lot of grating. Not only are the directors violating the First Commandment of film direction—Thou shalt not call attention to thyself and the camera—they have applied it to a work where it has no artistic place whatsoever. Likewise, the producers and directors seem to have stood over the film editors with a whip: Cut it fast! Faster! If a scene was shot from twelve different angles, you may be sure that three seconds from each take have been spliced together, whether such disjointedness serves the story or not.
What on earth were the BBC thinking? "Well, mates, Davies was able to compress this baggy monster into no fewer than fifteen hours. Right. So we'll jazz it up so that an impatient twenty-first century audience will climb aboard." If co-bankrollers WGBH Boston are the culprits, then the crime is ten times worse: the Brits were Yanked around. "If we get away with it and the buggers keep tuning in, next year let's try 'A Long Day's Journey Into Night' as hip-hop."
A top-drawer script, based on a mature tale by a beloved author, played by performers acting their talented hearts out. Some busybodies, who ought to have known better, were bitten by a cleverness bug and nearly wrecked the whole thing. Mine is a minority opinion, heretical to the millions who lapped it up in the mid-aughts. I can only report what I've seen. 'Tis a pity.