A ‘Bleak’ odyssey well worth the trip

Times Staff Writer

“Masterpiece Theatre” gets back to its roots Sunday night as it begins an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” the story of an endless, multiparty lawsuit, a disputed will, the lawyers it enriches and the lives it ruins, with false expectations and dashed hopes. There are also the usual family secrets, unguessed relationships and unspoken loves, and more coincidences than you can shake an Infinite Improbability Drive at. And there are orphans, of course, lots of them.

You can say thank you now.

It’s never too soon for a new Dickens film. He’s the most cinematically translatable of novelists, whose sprawling stories -- with their intertwining plots, vivid characters, Shakespearean mix of the comic and tragic, eminently speakable dialogue and marvelously described set pieces -- beg to be put on the screen. (The books will, of course, survive even the failed movies -- and this is not one of those.)

The current filmmakers -- some of whom were involved in the recent Trollope miniseries “The Way We Live Now” and “He Knew He Was Right” -- have decided to go a little dark, tonally, to create an air of almost constant foreboding (the predominant colors are blue and gray). It’s not that the book doesn’t merit such a treatment, being a tale with a high body count, dark secrets, children in peril, a villain of purposeless evil, a detective story, and a payoff that’s almost an absurdist joke. But the treatment turns passages that are comic or satirical on the page sinister on the screen.


They’ve also souped things up a bit, for contemporary sensibilities. Where Dickens begins his novel in a morass of fog and inertia, the film throws itself headlong into ACTION!, with thundering hoofbeats and pounding rain. And every so often, when switching from scene to scene, it goes batty with special effects more appropriate to a modern horror movie. There is also an annoying low-frequency electronic rumble, like the sound of a Death Star, that creeps in under scenes of tension to let you know they’re ... tense scenes. A few characters have been made younger, as well, possibly in the name of added verve.

What makes such dramatic Viagra dismaying is that it’s so unnecessary. The screenplay, by Andrew Davies, who adapted the above-mentioned Trollope novels, “Vanity Fair,” “Middlemarch” and “Pride and Prejudice” -- is sharp and vital, and the acting is superb, from the long-seasoned old pros to the little children. Among the film’s 80 speaking parts are such familiar faces as Nathaniel Parker (of “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries”), Pauline Collins (Oscar-nominated for “Shirley Valentine,” but I remember her best as the star of “Wodehouse Playhouse”), Ian Richardson (“House of Cards”) and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in the “Harry Potter” movies).

Most of the weight falls upon, and is gracefully borne by, Anna Maxwell as the novel’s partial narrator, Esther Summerson. (You don’t get heroines named “Esther” anymore.) Maxwell has that quality of appearing both “plain” and deeply beautiful, and she conveys equally well her centeredness and her longing -- the perfect 19th century Brit-lit heroine. Gillian Anderson, the erstwhile Dana Scully, is equally affecting as Lady Dedlock, wilting under one of those aforementioned family secrets. And Charles Dance is quietly sinister as the villainous lawyer Tulkinghorn.

The series was broadcast in Britain last year in 15 twice-weekly episodes, partly to suggest the novel’s original, 19-installment serial publication.

I happened to watch it all in a single sitting, and if you have the luxury of any sort of TV recorder and eight hours of continuous free time, I’d recommend gathering the episodes for binge viewing. The gathering force of the story and the need to know what comes next carry you along. It’s never dull. But however you split it, it’s well worth the time.


‘Masterpiece Theatre -- Bleak House’

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)