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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.

In a classy aside, Anderson tells the TV critics: "I understand the politics of it and it's very flattering, but certainly the clip -- and I know why it was done. But the clip gives the impression that Lady Dedlock is the central character. And she's really not the central character. The central character is Esther Summerson."

Anderson's right about that, but it's also true that Lady Dedlock is crucial to the action. And the actress's coldly vulnerable portrayal is one of the film's great strengths. We first see her in the drawing room of her grand estate. She looks out the window and her husband, Sir Leicester, asks whether it's still raining.

"Yes, my love," she answers placidly. "And I am bored to death with it. Bored to death with this place. Bored to death with my life. Bored to death with myself."

It's hard to remember the last time boredom seemed so engaging.

As Esther, Martin is the moral heart of the piece, and her strength and empathy are evident throughout. Martin is pretty in an unconventional way -- think of the young Jane Wyman -- and her mouth, without speaking, can convey whole subtle paragraphs of emotion.

If a snake and a wasp could produce offspring, their son would probably be a lot like Dance's Tulkinghorn. His circling of Lady Dedlock is, well, a Dance of Death, and he attacks the part with relish.

The actor acknowledges he has never portrayed so vile a character.

"To put it bluntly," he says, "he's a complete [bleep] without a redeeming feature in his makeup at all. It's not my job to ask an audience for sympathy, to make an audience like him. He's through and through a despicable character. He's a social climber. He's the worst face of the law. And he was enormous fun to play."

"Bleak House" evokes a world quite different from our own, a world where even in the most civilized countries, the downtrodden are without recourse while the privileged live even their dark moments with a veneer of civility.

It's a nice world to visit, and it's fun to realize that the man driving that coach is the impish, white-haired personage to the right of the stage.

As the "Bleak House" question-and-answer session concludes, a friendly softball is lobbed Davies's way. "I'm wondering what's your secret," the questioner says. "You're so prolific."

"Well, I have no private life, I think," he responds, as the audience laughter begins. "I just sit there and do it most of the time. And in fact -- yeah, I don't really have any friends either."

He pauses. "In fact, if anybody likes the look of me, will they come up and -- "

The laughter is filling the large room now, and Davies resumes:

"What I was going to say, doing this -- because I'm -- I'm getting quite old now. And you know, if I go up to young people in the street and say, 'Would you like to have a good time with me?' they report me to the police. But if I write these scripts, it gets -- "

The crowd is very happy, and he continues in this vein even after Eaton breaks in and says, "Oh, Andrew, stop it." He stops when he's ready to stop, and whether he's typing or talking, many people seem to like it that way. As writer and raconteur, Davies is a master.

The first Bleak House installment (120 minutes) begins tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26; the series continues every Sunday through Feb. 26.

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