“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

 

“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

Previously, I have confessed to not being much of a fan of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. And if I must be brutally honest, that confession still stands. I have only seen at least five adaptations of his novels – two movies and three television miniseries. Out of the five productions, I tend to be more tolerable of the three television productions. And one of them is the 2005 miniseries, “BLEAK HOUSE”, the third adaptation of Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. 

“BLEAK HOUSE” has several subplots . . . typical Dickens. But all of them are somehow connected to one plot that centers around a long-running legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which came about due to conflicting wills. One of the potential beneficiaries under the case is landowner named John Jarndyce, who is designated the legal guardian of two wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who are also potential beneficiaries. He also becomes the guardian of a third ward, an orphan named Esther Summerson, whom he hires as housekeeper for his estate and Ada’s companion. Unbeknownst to everyone, Esther is the illegal daughter of a former Army officer and drug addict named Captain James Hawdon aka “Nemo”, who makes his living as a copyist for law firms; and Lady Honoria Dedlock, the wife of baronet Sir Leicester Deadlock.

As it turns out, Lady Deadlock is also a potential beneficiary of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. When she and Sir Leicester are informed of the court’s decision regarding the three wards by the latter’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Lady Deadlock visibly reacts to the handwriting on an affidavit. Mr. Tulkinghorn notices and sets out to investigate the identity of the affidavit’s copyist, in the hopes of financially benefiting from Lady Deadlock’s past. He also recruits the help of Lady Deadlock’s maid Mademoiselle Hortense, his associate Mr. Clamb, a greedy moneylender named Mr. Smallweed and the unintentional assistance of a young man named Mr. Guppy, who works as a legal associate for John Jarndyce’s solicitor, Mr. Kenge.

I also enjoyed two other Dickens productions to a certain degree – the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, and the 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”. But if I must be honest, I found the narratives for both productions a bit hard to follow, due to the slightly chaotic nature of the source materials. “BLEAK HOUSE” turned out to be a different kettle of fish. Like the other two productions, it possessed a good number of subplots. In a way, it reminded me of “LITTLE DORRIT”, as it focused on the mindless and useless confusion of the chancery. But what I really admiIt was probably due to all of the subplots’ connections to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Or it could be that Dickens had simply created a main narrative that I found easier to follow. Just about every subplot either connected directly or indirectly to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. A good example of a subplot that connected directly to the story’s main theme would be Richard Carstone’s blatant attempt to pursue a ruling on the case that would favor him and his fiancée/wife, Ada Clare, who also happened to be a potential beneficiary. And excellent example of the narrative’s indirect connection to the Jarndyce case proved to be the subplot involving Lady Deadlock (another beneficiary), her illegitimate daughter Esther Summerson and her husband’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn. In fact, this particular subplot proved to have the biggest impact upon Dickens’ narrative. I thought it was certainly the most interesting.

It also helped that the story’s leading woman character, Esther Summerson, did not prove to be another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house” types. Yes, Esther was a warm and decent woman whom most of the characters liked. But she was also a woman who remained traumatized by her status as an illegitimate child and the emotional abuse she had endured from a self-righteous and highly religious woman she believed to be her godmother, but who turned out to be her aunt. Because of her abusive past, Esther suffered from a lack of esteem. I must admit that I am only familiar with at least four Dickens novels. Because of this, Esther proved to be the first Dickens leading lady who was portrayed with such complexity.

In regard to characterization, my only disappointment with “BLEAK HOUSE” proved to be the story’s antagonists. As I had earlier pointed out, I am only familiar with four of Dickens’ novels. For a man who had no problems with pointing out the evils of modern 19th century society, he seemed very reluctant in creating villains who are from the social elite. His villains are either lower or middle-class . . . or they are foreigners. The closet Dickens came to a well-born antagonist in “BLEAK HOUSE” was the selfish and amoral sponger Harold Skimpole. However, in compare to Sir Leicester Deadlock’s middle-class solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and Lady Deadlock’s French-born maid, Madame Hortense; Skimpole is, at best, a minor comic villain.

I have few other complaints about “BLEAK HOUSE”. One complaint I have about the production was Kieran McGuigan’s cinematography. I had no problem with the production’s exterior shots. Since the miniseries was shot in High Definition Television format, McGuigan’s photography in the exterior shots captured all of the details of the set designs, props, the performers’ costumes and make-up. However, I could barely see anything in those shots set at night time and especially many of the interior shots. There were times when I felt I was merely looking at a dark screen. And I must admit that I found some of McGuigan’s camera angles rather disconcerting and there were times when I found it difficult to ascertain what was going on in a particular scene. Jason Krasucki and Paul Knight’s editing did not help. Both men had utilized an editing method that I found irritating. Whenever the miniseries moved from one scene to another, the two film editors utilized a fast shift that I found unnecessary and tonally off-putting. Perhaps producer Stafford-Clark had hoped that the fast shifts between scenes and the odd camera angles would make “BLEAK HOUSE” look modern. Honestly, I found these aspects of the production tonally off and unnecessary.

I have one last complaint. I never understood why Stafford-Clark and the BBC felt it was necessary to present the miniseries, with the exception of the first one, in half-hour episodes. Others had complained, as well. The response to this criticism was that Dickens’ long and complex novel required the fifteen installments in which it was presented. But honestly . . . the BBC could have presented the miniseries in eight hour-long episodes. Why was that so hard to consider? Every time an episode ended after 27-to-30 minutes, I felt a sense of frustration. And there were times when I found myself trying to remember which episode out of the fifteen installments I had to choose to continue. Unfortunately, the BBC went on to utilize the same format for its 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”.

Aside from those complaints, I really did enjoy “BLEAK HOUSE”. For me, the heart and soul of the production proved to the array of characters and the fabulous actors and actresses who portrayed them. “BLEAK HOUSE” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Timothy West, Alun Armstrong, Richard Harrington, John Lynch, Sheila Hancock, Tom Georgeson, Anne Reid, Richard Griffiths, Joanna David, Catherine Tate, Louise Brealey, Harry Eden and especially Ian Richardson, whom I found particularly entertaining as the kindly, yet witty Chancellor. I also enjoyed those performances from Warren Clarke, who gave a broadly entertaining performance as Mr. Boythorn, an old friend of John Jarndyce; Hugo Speer, the proud and struggling former Army sergeant and former friend/subordinate of Captain Hawdon; Pauline Collins, who struck me as particularly poignant in her role as the warm-hearted, yet long-suffering Miss Flite; Lilo Baur as the ambitious and vindictive foreign-born lady’s maid, Madame Hortense; and especially Phil Davis, whose colorful portrayal of the mean-tempered and greedy moneylender, Mr. Smallweed, made evil look so entertaining with his caustic remarks and now famous catchphrase:

“Shake me up, Judy! Shake me up!”

Nathaniel Parker gave a particularly memorable performance as the manipulative, yet self-absorbed sponger, Harold Skimpole. A part of me remains amazed that John Jarndyce had regarded him as a friend for so long. Carey Mulligan gave a warm, yet interesting performance as one of Mr. Jarndyce’s wards, Ada Clare. What made the actress’s performance interesting to me was her ability to convey not only Ada’s positive traits, but the character’s unrelenting blindness to her love’s flaws. Speaking of Ada’s love, Patrick Kennedy was excellent as Mr. Jarndyce’s other ward – the charming, yet undependable Richard Carstone. I must admit that Richard proved to be one a rather pathetic personality, who was always chasing a path toward quick riches, whether it was by jumping from one profession to another or putting all of his hopes on the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case. Burn Gorman was a hoot as the friendly, yet ambitious and clever law clerk, William Guppy, who became enamored of Esther Summerson and who figured out the connection between her and Lady Deadlock. As much as I liked him and Gorman’s performance, I could not help but suspect that Guppy’s idea of love was somewhat shallow

In my personal opinion, there were four performances in “BLEAK HOUSE” that reigned supreme. Those four performances came from Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance. Now, I would not regard the character of Josiah Tulkinghorn as subtle or even two-dimensional. But thanks to Charles Dance’s subtle and malevolent portrayal, which earned him an Emmy nominatino, audiences were privy to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s talent for manipulation and coercion. Denis Lawson earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of John Jarndyce, the kind-hearted landowner who took in Esther, Richard and Ada. Lawson did an excellent job in balancing Mr. Jarndyce’s wise counseling of the three young people, willful blindness to Mr. Skimpole’s machinations and subtle selfish desire for Esther’s hand in marriage. Gillian Anderson earned both an Emmy and a British Academy Television Awards nominations for her portrayal of the story’s femme fatale, so to speak – Lady Honoria Dedlock. The American-born Anderson did a superb job in conveying her character’s complex and mysterious personality. Superficially, the Esther Summerson character seemed like another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house”. Thanks to the author’s pen and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s superb performance, Esther proved to be a warm, yet troubled young woman struggling to find a place for herself in the world and overcome her past trauma at the hands of an emotionally abusive guardian. Not only was Maxwell-Martin received a well-deserved nomination from the British Academy Television Awards, she also won.

No movie or television production is perfect. I had some problem with the miniseries’ editing, camera angles, and television format for “BLEAK HOUSE”. But aside from these quibbles, I can honestly say that I truly enjoy this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. It is one of the few Dickens’ stories that do not seemed marred by too many subplots that are unrelated. And I believe that screenwriter Andrew Davies, directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, along with a superb cast led by Anna Maxwell-Martin truly did justice to the novel.

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“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

I have been a fan of novels written by Agatha Christie since the age of the thirteen. Mind you, I do not like all of her novels. But there are a handful that have been personal favorites of mine for years . . . and remain personal favorites even to this day. One of those is the 1950 novel, “A Murder Is Announced”

Superficially, the plot to the 1950 novel seemed pretty simple. During Britain’s post-World War II era, a handful of citizens from Chipping Cleghorn read a notice in their local newspaper announcing that a “murder is announced” and would take place at Little Paddocks, the home of a spinster named Letitia Blacklock. Many of Little Paddocks’ inhabitants and local neighbors assume that this “murder” is actually a game in which a fake murder occurs and the party guests have to solve it. However, Miss Blacklock never placed the advertisement. Realizing that some people might pay a visit out of sheer curiousity, she makes arrangements for an impromptu party.

Right on cue, several guests arrive. They include:

*Colonel Archie Easterbrook, a retired Army officer
*Mrs. Sadie Swettenham, a local widow
*Lizzie Hinchcliffe, a local farmer
*Amy Murgatroyd, Miss Hinchcliffe’s companion and lover
*Edmund Swettenham, Mrs. Swettenham’s only son

Also attending the party are other inhabitants of Little Paddock:

*Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s old friend and companion
*Patrick Simmons, Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Julia Simmons, Patrick’s sister and Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Phillipa Haymes, Miss Blacklock’s tenant and a war widow
*Mitzi Kosinski, Miss Blacklock’s Central European servant and a former war refugee

Not long after the party begins, the lights inside Little Paddock immediately go out. Someone brandishing a flashlight announces a stickup and demands that everyone raise their hands. Seconds later, several gunshots ring out. When the lights are restored, Miss Blacklock and her guests discover the dead body of a young man on the floor. Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to solve the case. Before long, he finds himself being assisted by the story’s leading lady, the elderly amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The latter was staying at the hotel where the dead victim, Rudi Scherz, worked at. And she eventually arrived at Chipping Cleghorn as a vistor of one of Miss Blacklock’s guests. After a bit of investigation into Scherz’s past as a hotel clerk and a petty thief, both Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock come to the conclusion that the killer had intended to kill Miss Blacklock and merely used Scherz to set up the crime and be used as a patsy.

All right. Perhaps the plot of “A Murder Is Announced” was not that simple, especially since involved family conflicts, a great inheritance and greed. I do know there have been one stage and three television adaptations of the 1950 novel. One of the TV adaptations aired on NBC’s “THE GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE” back in 1956. The second TV adaptation aired on the BBC series, “MISS MARPLE” and starred Joan Hickson. And the third adaptation, Geraldine McEwan, aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” back in 2005. This article is a review of the 2004 adaptation.

I noticed that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt made a good deal of changes from Christie’s novel. And yet . . . “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” did not suffer from these changes. Certain characters were deleted from this adaptation. Laura Easterbrook, wife of Colonel Archie Easterbrook did not appear in this story, making the latter a divorced man. This scenario also allowed Harcourt to create a romance between Easterbrook and the widowed Mrs. Sadie Swettenham. As for the latter’s young son Edmund, his literary romance was nipped in the bud due to his opposition against his mother’s romance with the alcoholic Colonel Easterbrook. That is correct. Colonel Easterbrook is an alcoholic in this story. Two other characters deleted were the Reverend Julian Harmon and his wife, Diana “Bunch” Harmon. This proved to be something of a problem, considering that in Christie’s novel, Miss Marple stayed with the Harmons during her visit to Clipping Cleghorn. In this adaptation, Miss Marple stayed with farmer Miss Hinchcliffe and her companion, Amy Murgatroyd. Miss Murgatroyd, like the literary Mrs. Harmon, was her goddaughter. Also, Harcourt made it slightly more apparent than Christie did that Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were also lovers. Aside from these changes, Harcourt’s adaptation of the 1950 novel was faithful.

And yet . . . Harcourt’s changes did not harm Christie’s novel one bit. Perhaps the reason why his changes did not have a strong and negative impact was due to them being quite minor. Creating a slightly different romance along with deleting two minor characters simply did not have an impact on Christie’s story. Thank God. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” has always been one of my favorite novels written by the author. The idea of a movie or television screenwriter inflicting major changes upon its narrative would have been abhorrent to me.

The main reason behind my admiration for “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is its portrayal of post-World War II Britain and how it affected the actions of various characters in this story. In one paragraph of the 1950 novel, Miss Marple explained how the war had upset the staid and knowing world of various villages and towns throughout the country:

“(Chipping Cleghorn is) very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago (before the war) one knew who everybody was . . . They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone already there. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out . . . But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.”

In “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”, Miss Marple and Detective-Inspector Craddock discovered that Miss Blacklock had been a wealthy financier’s secretary before the war. Following Randall Goedler’s death, his widow inherited his money. However, Mrs. Goedler is dying. But since they had no children, Goedler left his money to Miss Blacklock in the event of his wife’s death. The will also stipulated that if Miss Blacklock should die before Mrs. Goedler, then the children of Goedler’s estranged sister – Pip and Emma. Due to the upheaval nature of British society during the post-war years, neither Miss Marple or Inspector Craddock know who Pip or Emma are. Or for that matter, their mother, Sonia. Either two or all three might be residing at Chipping Cleghorn, waiting for Belle Goedler’s death and ensuring that Miss Blacklock will die before it happens. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is one of those rare Christie stories in which the story’s time period has such a major impact upon it. And despite the changes regarding some of the adaptation’s characters, Harcourt never changed the core of the teleplay’s narrative.

Do I have any complaints about “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”? If I must be honest . . . not really. Well . . . perhaps a few minor ones. A part of me wish that Harcourt had expanded a bit more on Miss Marple’s conversation with Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s companion and old friend, at a local tea cafe. A part of me felt as if enough had been said. I also wish that Harcourt had utilized the role of Miss Blacklock’s maid, Mitzi, just as Christie had did in the novel. I found the literary version of Mitzi’s role in the murderer’s exposure very dramatic. It seemed that the drama of that moment had been cut by Harcourt’s screenplay. In fact, I would add that that the teleplay’s last ten to fifteen minutes struck me as a bit rushed. A part of me wish that this adaptation had been a little longer than 94 minutes.

Another aspect that made “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” work for me were the performances featured in the production. The teleplay marked Geraldine McEwan’s fourth outing as Miss Jane Marple and she did an excellent job in conveying the character’s intelligence and subtle sense of humor. However, I was especially impressed by the actress in a scene that featured Miss Marple’s discovery of a third murder victim.

There were four other performances that I regard as first-rate. The first came from  Zoë Wanamaker, who gave a superb performance as Letitia Blacklock. Wanamaker did an excellent job of conveying her character from a competent retired secretary to a beleaguered woman who becomes increasingly paranoid over the threat of being killed for a great fortune. The second excellent performance came from Robert Pugh, who was excellent as Archie Easterbrook, the alcoholic former Army officer battling his demons, romantic desire and loneliness. Cheri Lunghi also gave a superb performance as Colonel Easterbrook’s object of desire, the lonely widow Sadie Swettenham. One of my favorite characters from Christie’s Miss Marple novel was the police investigator, Dermot Craddock. Just about every actor who has portrayed Craddock has done an excellent job. And that includes Alexander Armstrong, who portrayed the police detective in “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I was surprised to learn that Armstrong is basically known as a comedian and singer in Great Britain, especially since he gave such a strong performance as the no-nonsense Detective-Inspector Craddock.
However, the television movie also featured excellent performances from the rest of the cast. They include performances from the likes of Keeley Hawes, Frances Barber, Claire Skinner, Elaine Page, Matthew Goode, Sienna Guillory, Christian Coulson, Virginia McKenna, Catherine Tate and Richard Dixon. And if you are patient, you just might catch Lesley Nicol of “DOWNTON ABBEY” in a small role. I can honestly say that I did not come across one performance that I would consider questionable or merely solid.

Overall, I did not merely enjoyed “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I loved it. Yes, I thought its running time could have stretched a bit past 94 minutes. But I thought screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and director John Strickland did an excellent job of adapting one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels of all time. And both were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by the always talented Geraldine McEwan.