BLEAK HOUSE. (2005) THE BBC TV DRAMATISATION BASED ON THE BOOK BY CHARLES DICKENS. DIRECTED BY JUSTIN CHADWICK AND SUSANNA WHITE.
STARRING GILLIAN ANDERSON, TIMOTHY WEST, CHARLES DANCE, ALUN ARMSTRONG, ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN, DENIS LAWSON, ALISTAIR MCGOWAN, LIZA TARBUCK, PHIL DAVIS, CAREY MULLIGAN, JOHNNY VEGAS, WARREN CLARKE, SEAN MCGINLEY, JOHN LYNCH, BURN GORMAN, SHEILA HANCOCK, CHARLIE BROOKS, IAN RICHARDSON, HUGO SPEER, PAULINE COLLINS, CATHERINE TATE, RICHARD GRIFFITHS, NATHANIEL PARKER AND MATTHEW KELLY.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Shake me up, Judy…!’
This fifteen-part mini-series is a magnificent piece of work; a televisual feast, if you will, with a cast so impressive it’ll knock your socks off. It’s Victorian London, of course, with frequent forays into the English countryside to visit rich people’s country homes when the plot calls for it.
The titular Bleak House is the home of wealthy, middle-aged bachelor John Jarndyce. He’s kind and generous and open-hearted, which is why he gave a home, years ago, to the orphaned Esther Summerson, who is now his housekeeper.
Esther has no idea who her parents were. All she knows for sure is that she was ‘her mother’s ruin and disgrace.’ It can’t be comfortable, growing up with that kind of stigma pressing down on you like a layer of bricks, and with a genuine mystery shrouding the issue of where you’ve come from.
Esther is extraordinarily well-adjusted, compassionate and sensible, though, and she is generally loved by everyone with whom she comes into contact. Indeed, she has three suitors make love to her (in the Victorian way, that is, all earnest declarations and no sexual contact!) during the course of this seven-and-a-half hour televisual masterpiece, and all three of ’em still desire to connect their fates to hers even after she contracts the smallpox through playing Florence Nightingale to a young urchin, and becomes scarred. Now that’s what I call true love.
Also staying at Bleak House are Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, a pair of young lovers who are known as ‘the wards in Jarndyce.’ Let me explain. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a court case that’s been going on in the English Court of Chancery for donkey’s years. Ian Richardson plays the officiating judge in the case. If ever an actor was born to wear a judge’s wig and talk dead posh in a court of law, it is surely he.
Ada and Richard are the two latest claimants to have a vested interest in the case, in which an old codger years ago left some conflicting wills when he popped his clogs. The only people currently benefiting from the case being dragged slowly and painfully through the courts are the lawyers. Isn’t it always the way? Absolutely no change there then, haha.
Ada and Richard are advised not to get their hopes up too much as regards inheriting this old geezer’s fortune. This case could go on for years, they’re told. It may never be resolved, they’re warned, and not without good reason, either.
Ada, being a typical female with a loving heart, cares only about the dashing young curly-haired Richard, but Richard makes the mistake of throwing his whole heart and soul into the case, which has broken bigger and better men than he. Will it cost him more than he’s prepared to pay…? (You know it will, lol.)
Charles Dance is superb as the terrifying Mr. Tulkinghorn, Attorney-At-Law, who is lawyer to the rich and privileged. He is not accustomed to having underlings talk back to him or tread on his toes and, by Jove, if they do, they’ll not do it a second time.
He’s unscrupulous and immoral and he’s not at all above a spot of blackmail if it lines his own pockets. He is feared, hated and despised by those who run afoul of him, and when someone finally does take a pop at him, there’s a line of suspects a mile long. It’s like the ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’ episode of THE SIMPSONS, lol.
His richest clients are Sir Leicester and Lady Honoria Dedlock, played by Timothy West and Gillian Anderson, who goes on to play Miss Havisham in the 2011 BBC TV dramatisation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
Sir Leicester lives in the sort of cloud-cuckoo-land inhabited by many rich aristocrats of the time. He doesn’t have a clue what kind of conditions the poor people of England are forced to live in, and it really gets his goat that his housekeeper’s son, a Mr. Rouncewell, has risen up from lowly beginnings to become a rich factory-owner. It doesn’t affect him adversely in any way whatsoever; it just gets up his nose to see a povvo rising through the ranks to become a man of substance.
Sir Leicester, to give him his dues, does really love his beautiful, much younger ice-queen of a wife, his Lady Dedlock, but she is one desperately unhappy woman. Lonely, by her own admission ‘bored to death with the weather, bored to death with her life and bored to death with herself,’ and she has a sad, shocking secret into the bargain that some of the more unscrupulous characters in this dramatisation seem determined to bring out into the open, purely for their own financial game.
Characters like the vile, evil Mr. Tulkinghorn and his long-suffering clerk, Clamb; Johnny Vegas as the aptly-named landlord, alcoholic and hoarder, Mr. Krook; Mr. Guppy of Kenge and Carboys, an ambitious young clerk who woos- or tries to woo!- Esther Summerson and who intends to rise in his profession, despite his Cockney accent and slightly odd facial features. Remember, young Guppy, you insolent puppy, love is not love which alters when it alteration finds!; and, last but definitely not least, Mr. Smallweed the moneylender, possibly the most repulsive and self-serving of all of Dickens’s villains. He makes Bill Sikes and Fagin the miser look like graduates (with honours) from charm school, he’s so disgustingly awful and foul-tempered and rude. ‘Shake me up, Judy…!’
Gillian Anderson is utterly sublime as the cold, distant Lady Dedlock, the woman with the boarded-up heart. Every inch the proud, haughty, arrogant aristocrat when the situation calls for it, she is nevertheless a broken, deeply wounded woman who once loved deeply and now keeps her heart under lock and key where no-one can touch it. Except that all kinds of vulgar riff-raff are now rattling at the lock and it’s only a matter of time before one of them penetrates to the inner sanctum. Must Honoria Dedlock pay for the sins of poor unhappy Honoria Barbary…?
Gillian Anderson’s face is just so fabulously photogenic; her eyes, her mouth, the planes of her face all combine to form a gloriously nuanced whole that reflect perfectly every emotion she’s required to express, from aristocratic disdain to heartbroken despair. It’s no coincidence that there are more close-ups of her boat-race than of anyone else’s in this TV dramatisation. She has a face to die for, the kind that could easily launch a thousand ships. THE X FILES‘s loss was surely Dickens’s gain…
There are plenty of other familiar faces here too. Alun Armstrong (he plays Daniel Peggotty in the TV dramatisation of DAVID COPPERFIELD) portrays Inspector Bucket (Are you sure it’s not pronounced ‘Bouquet,’ Inspector?), the copper who’s called in to solve the murder of a very high-profile- but deeply despised- man. Pauline Collins (SHIRLEY VALENTINE, the original UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS) plays the appropriately-named Miss Flite, the crazy old bird-lady.
Hugo Speer (THE FULL MONTY; remember ‘The lunchbox has landed,’ and ‘Oh, hiya, Gerald, I di’n’t see you there!’) plays a decent man pushed to his limits by the dreadful Mr. Tulkinghorn and the possibly even worse Mr. Smallweed, who’d sell his own mother for a few quid and throw in his sister as well for a few shillings more, if he had a mother and sister, that is.
Harold Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker) is, in his own refined way, even more detestable than Tulkinghorn and Smallweed put together. ‘A perfect child in such matters’ he may be, but a dangerous, spoiled child, who does as much damage in his own way as the more obvious and less genteel of Dickens’s villains. Did you hear what he says about his wife and children? The callous bastard! He needs a wake-up call, does Harold Skimpole.
Charlie Brooks, aka Janine from EASTENDERS, plays a povvo with an abusive husband, and Di Botcher the mother of another of Esther Summerson’s valiant suitors, a Welsh medic called Allan Woodcourt. As is usually the case with these big budget TV dramatisations, the viewer can have great fun playing spot-the-minor-celeb in the various roles.
Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance steal every scene they’re in and, when they’re acting together, it’s a toss-up as to who gets the better of whom, each of their characters being as cold and hard as the other and each as determined as the other not to let their guard down.
But the tragic Lady Dedlock has at least loved once, that we know of, has written billets-doux to a lover and lost that lover in painful circumstances. It makes her more human to us. Has the odious Mr. Tulkinghorn ever said ‘I love you’ to anyone but his own reflection in the shaving mirror? I wouldn’t bet on it…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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