DICKENS. Man. What is it about Charles Dickens? In high school I remember being assigned "Great Expectations," which I mostly read, and "A Tale of Two Cities," which, once I had ascertained that the novel’s first line is indeed as magnificent as pop culture would have us believe, I didn’t read at all, working from the notion that when a novel’s first line is so memorable, the rest of it will inevitably be a letdown.
Also, of course, there was the fact that I made a point of reading almost nothing of what I was assigned in literature classes in high school, with exceptions for "Jane Eyre," "Moby Dick" and anything by Shakespeare. As an adult, I feel for my former teachers, whom we all thought we were hoodwinking brilliantly into believing that we’d done the reading, but who undoubtedly knew we were making shit up as we went along. Hell, even our teachers seemed apologetic, explaining that many of Dickens’ were initially published in monthly installments in his own periodicals, so dude had a bit of an investment in sort of extending the action, if you catch my drift.
I never read "Bleak House," in spite of the fact that I was never assigned it, which should have improved its chances. Thus I came to the BBC’s award-winning 2005 dramatization of Dickens' "Bleak House" (available, of course, streaming on Netflix) with no idea of the story, and that is a serious impediment when dealing with Dickens. I honestly had to watch it twice to understand that it is a satire of the British judiciary system of the era, and lest you think me very stupid, realize that I come from a country where humor in popular television tends to be administered with a weighted bat and not a silk needle.
OK, I also had to read the Wikipedia page for the novel. Truly, I had no idea what was going on.
Gillian Anderson gets top billing as Lady Dedlock, and before y’all start going, “Wait, Agent Scully? For serious?” I should warn you that she is secretly a marvelous actor and does the whole tragic aristocratic I’m-having-a-million-painful-feelings-but-cannot-show-them-at-all-except-for-a-tiny-tiny-bit thing really admirably. No, the actor whose past role I can’t shake is instead Denis Lawson, who I know has done many things since 1983 but will always be "Star Wars"’ Wedge Antilles to me. Sorry dude, but it’s really your own fault for aging so well.
The story begins with three wards -- orphans, I guess? -- coming into Wedge’s house -- the titular Bleakness -- where the longtime bachelor Wedge has kindly volunteered to care for them. Two of these unfortunates are distantly related, both to Wedge and to each other, and stand to inherit some money from a protracted legal battle over the multitude of wills left by a wealthy gentleman by the name of Jarndyce... oh god, you guys, I just can’t. The litigation plot is too bewildering for my feeble American brain. Let’s just say there’s a court case that’s gone on for a long time and everybody in the story has some sort of stake in it.
The two would-be inheritors are the impossibly adorable Ada (Carey Mulligan) and the predictably good-looking Richard (Patrick Kennedy). The third young person coming to Bleak House is Esther (the magnificent Anna Maxwell Martin), who has been employed as a “companion” to Ada, ostensibly because at the time, a woman in her late teens couldn’t share a house with a couple other men without the whole neighborhood assuming there’s mad grotesque sexing going on 24/7. Esther’s job is essentially Director of Cockblocking. And people say the Victorians were uptight. The Victorians were freaking filthy, believe it.
Esther has some kind of mysterious origin story, and not the kind of mysterious origin story that ends with her being able to set fires with her mind or melt steel by looking at it sternly. It seems that she was born out of wedlock and sent away to be raised by an unloving aunt in a shack in the dark woods, kind of like Snow White, except without dwarves or singing. How she got hooked up with Wedge, I have no idea. I think he knew the unloving aunt. It seems like everyone in this story is blood-related somehow.
Our tale proceeds as these initial characters meet up with the billion or so secondary characters, from soot-stained urchins to satanic lawyers to a kooky lady with a million caged pet birds and a guy who dies via spontaneous human combustion while talking to his cat. That’s in the original work, too, I checked. What is up with Dickens and setting people on fire?
Some mysterious dude dies via opium overdose, and Lady Scully is sad, which is weird because he was a dirt-encrusted pleb and she is a wealthy aristocratic wife who does little more with her time than stand morosely staring out of windows and being mean to her (admittedly horrible) French lady’s maid. Oooh, you guys, what could their connection possibly be? Some big mean lawyer guy ("Game of Thrones’" Charles Dance) is gonna find out. There will be incriminating letters. Because there are always incriminating letters.
Meanwhile the two wards-who-are-cousins start, like, dating or courting or whatever they called it back then when kids would lie around in the grass on a sunny day smiling at each other earnestly, which is sort of weird but I am pretty sure that cousins got married all the time in England in this era. I sure hope that assumption doesn’t offend any UK readers. Wedge, on the other hand, is trying really hard to ask Esther to marry him, which is also sort of weird as he is at least 30 years older than her.
Events unfold, Esther’s mother’s identity is revealed, and Burn Gorman (whom some of y’all might know as Owen from "Torchwood") plays the most perfect example of the Entitled Nice Guy Suitor ever, proving that initally innocuous guys have been turning into skeevy stalker jerks when faced with romantic rejection since time immemorial.
I enjoyed this adaptation of "Bleak House" quite a bit. Although I confess it took me a couple tries to get into it, once I got a handle on the basics of the plot and figured out that it is, really, a soap opera, with all the attendant cliffhanger-y complicatedness thereof, I found it a compelling watch. It goes without saying that with such a cast, it would be well-acted, but I will say it anyway -- the acting is truly superb. And even if you are perplexed by the zillion subplots, the series provides some beautiful eye candy not only in its locations but also in its costumes and art direction.
My verdict for "Bleak House": highly recommended. Probably best if you watch it on a non-flammable surface, though.
Want to see more unserious reviews of UK historical dramas currently streaming on Netflix? Let me know how you liked this in comments, or suggest what I should watch next.