TV Preview

Miniseries Does Supreme Justice to Dickens's 'Bleak House'

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006

PASADENA, Calif. -- " 'Bleak House' is a great baggy thing. . . . The plot kind of bulges out. You know, it's like -- no, I was going to say like horrible boils or something. But in a nice way. Can I say that?"

The speaker is screenwriter Andrew Davies, much noted for adaptations ranging from the 1995 miniseries "Pride and Prejudice" to "Bridget Jones's Diary." He's here at the Television Critics Association conference to plug his latest creation, a sumptuous, richly textured and highly entertaining production of Charles Dickens's "Bleak House." (The eight-hour "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries begins airing tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26 with a two-hour installment.)

Davies, quite pleased with himself, is almost as outrageous as he is gifted and productive, and his PBS keepers find there's little point in trying to restrain the 69-year-old. So yes, Andrew, you can say that.

With him onstage in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom are Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files"), who plays the icy, enigmatic Lady Dedlock in the film, and "Masterpiece Theatre" stalwart Charles Dance, who oozes malice as the evil lawyer Tulkinghorn.

If you have been put off by either the dour title or the ornately gargantuan art of Dickens, set all that aside. This "Bleak House" is more fun than a barrel of Victorian monkeys, and directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White and their actors are clearly reveling in their assignments. But the crucial contributor here is Davies; his script is by turns suspenseful, touching and revelatory, and perhaps more than any other Dickens adaptation, it allows the viewer to replicate the experience of reading the book.

Dickens wrote "Bleak House" in 20 installments in 1852 and 1853, and as a serial writer, he knew how to retain a reader's allegiance -- each episode ended with a cliffhanger. This production originally aired on the BBC as a half-hour soap opera. Davies planned to write 20 half-hours before condensing it to 16, but he retained the structure and the storytelling device: Every half-hour the action gets especially nervous.

Davies and "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton insist that the film will play just as well in one- and two-hour installments as it did in Britain, and they're right. In fact, it's probably better this way.

The script contains 80 speaking parts (Davies: "I was just getting so frustrated, saying: 'Stop inventing all these characters, Dickens, and get on with the story, please. What is the story?' "). As noted, the plot kind of bulges out, and it does so in many directions. Much of the action concerns a generations-old court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which the courts repeatedly have failed to resolve the question of conflicting wills and an enormous sum of money.

It's almost enough to convince you that our American courts are models of justice and efficiency.

Among the various claimants are Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan), two attractive young people sent to live at Bleak House, the Lincolnshire estate of kindly John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson). Accompanying them is Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), Ada's companion.

Anderson's Lady Dedlock is another claimant, but we know instantly that she has much more than that on her mind. She is a woman with a past, and her husband's attorney, Tulkinghorn (Dance), is determined to root it out.

The top-billed Anderson, who lives and works in Britain, is given star treatment here; after all, she's the production's best-known player. Her face adorns the cover of a newly published edition of the novel, and in the teaser-movie excerpt shown to journalists, her role appears paramount.

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