“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.

“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.