“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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“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never seen a movie or television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace”. Never. Well . . . I once made an attempt to watch the 1956 movie adaptation directed by King Vidor. Unfortunately, I could never go the distance. In fact, I have never read the novel. 

However, many years passed. When I heard about the BBC’s latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give “WAR AND PEACE” a chance. The six-part miniseries is simply about the experiences of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Those families include the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and theDrubetskoys. The miniseries seemed to be divided into three segments during a period between 1805 and 1812-13. The first segment featured the introduction of the main characters and Russia’s preparation of a war against Napoleon’s France. This culminates into the Battle of Austerlitz in which two major characters – Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov – participate.

The second segment featured the characters’ personal experiences at home. During this period, the miniseries explored Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov’s failed marriage with the beautiful, but vapid and unfaithful Princess Yelena “Hélène” Vasilyevna Kuragina; the Rostov family’s financial woes and how it affected Nikolai Rostov; the emotional strains within the Bolkonsky family; Prince Boris Drubetskoy’s efforts to advance his military career; and especially Countess Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova’s love life, which included both Andrei Bolkonsky and Prince Anatole Vasilyevich Kuragin. This segment also included news of Treaties of Tilsit of 1807, which ended hostilities between Imperial France and Imperial Russia and Prussia. The miniseries’ final segment focused on France’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and the characters’ efforts to survive it.

I could compare director Tom Harper and screenwriter Andrew Davies’ adaptation with Tolstoy’s novel, but it would be a useless effort. As I had earlier pointed out, I have never read the novel. But I do have at least two complaints about the productions. One of them revolved around the relationship between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. I realize that the publicity machine on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone a great effort to build up the relationship between the pair. Frankly, I found the publicity campaign rather wasted. The Natasha/Andrei romance struck me as a disappointing and wasted effort. The majority of their story arc – which began with their meeting at a ball near the end of Episode Three, continued with Natasha’s brief romance with the slimy Anatole Kuragin, and ended with Natasha’s romances with both men crashing around her by the end of Episode Four; had moved . . . so damn fast that it left my head spinning. I cannot help but wonder if the entire arc could have been portrayed with more detail if the series had stretched a bit longer.

I also had a problem with Edward K. Gibbon’s costume designs. I found most of them very colorful, especially for the aristocratic characters. But I also found most of them rather troublesome. Well . . . to be honest, I found them either mediocre or historically questionable. One of them left me gritting my teeth:

But my jaw had literally dropped at the sight of a few costumes worn by actresses Tuppence Middleton and Gillian Anderson – including those shown in the images below:

 

WHAT IN THE HELL??? Their costumes looked more appropriate for present-day evening wear than the early 19th century. What was Mr. Gibbons thinking?

Despite the rushed Natasha Rostova/Andrei Bolkonsky romance and despite the rather questionable costumes, I managed to enjoy “WAR AND PEACE” very much. I am a sucker for family sagas, especially when they are seeped in a historical background. And “WAR AND PEACE” nearly pushed every one of my buttons when it comes to a well made saga. It had everything – romance, family struggles, historical events and personages. When I realized that Tolstoy had originally focused his tale on five families, I did not think Andrew Davies would be able to translate the author’s novel in a tight story without losing its epic quality.

There were certain sequences that really blew my mind, thanks to Davies’ writing and especially, Tom Harper’s direction. I thought Harper did an outstanding job of re-creating battles like Austerlitz and Borodino, along with the French Army’s retreat from Moscow. Harper also did a great job in directing large parties and ball scenes. My two favorites are the party held at St. Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon in Episode 1 and the ball where Natasha and Andrei met in Episode 3.

But it was not just the battle and crowd scenes that impressed me. “WAR AND PEACE” is – after all – a melodrama, even if many literary critics are inclined not to admit it. I never thought I would find myself getting caught up in the lives of the saga’s main characters. But I did. I must admit that I admire how Tolstoy . . . and Davies managed to allow the three main characters – Pierre, Natasha and Andrei – to interact with the five families, regardless of blood connection or marriage. I especially enjoyed the explorations into the lives of Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. At first glance, some might regard the miniseries’ ending that featured a picnic with the families of the three leads as a bit on the saccharine. It did have a “happily ever after” tinge about it. But I read in a newspaper article that complained about Tolstoy’s “realistic” ending – one that featured a less-than-happy view of the protagonists’ lives and a critique from Tolstoy on all forms of mainstream history. Thanks to Davies’ screenplay, audiences were spared of this.

“WAR AND PEACE” featured a good number of first-rate performances from a supporting cast that included Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Rebecca Front and Aneurin Barnard. However, I was especially impressed by certain supporting performances. One came from Greta Scacchi, who portrayed the Rostov family’s practical and sometimes ruthless matriarch Countess Natalya Rostova. I also enjoyed Brian Cox’s portrayal of the world weary General Mikhail Kutuzov, who has to contend with not only Napolean’s army, but also the amateurish interference of the Czar. Tom Burke did a great job in portraying the wolfish and ambitious army officer, Fedor Dolokhov, who eventually becomes a better man following Napoleon’s invasion. Jack Lowden’s portrayal of the young Count Nikolai Rostov really impressed me, especially when his character found himself torn between following his heart and marrying a wealthy woman to restore his family’s fortunes. And Jim Broadbent gave a very colorful performance as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, the mercurial and controlling patriarch of the Bolkonsky family.

And what about the production’s three leads? Lily James gave a very charming performance as Countess Natasha Rostova. Well . . . I take that back. Describing James’ performance as simply “charming” seemed to hint that I found it rather shallow. Yes, James handled Natasha’s “light” moments with her usual competence. More importantly, she did an excellent job in conveying Natasha’s personal struggles – especially during the series’ second half. There were times when I did not know what to make of the Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. He struck me as a very unusual protagonist. Although I found him rather honorable and filled with valor, Andrei did not always struck me as likable – especially in his relationship with adoring, yet ignored wife Lise. And Norton superbly captured the many nuances of Andrei’s character. If Andrei Bolkonsky struck me as an unusual protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov struck me as one of a kind. Well . . . one of a kind for a literary piece written in the 19th century. Sometimes, I get the feeling that someone like Pierre could easily translate into a late 20th century or early 21st century geek. Or perhaps not. I think Pierre is too kind and open-minded to be considered a geek. But he is very unusual for a leading man. And thanks to Paul Dano’s superb portrayal, Pierre has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He did a stupendous job in conveying Pierre’s character from this insecure and rather naive man to a man who learned to find wisdom and inner peace through his struggles. Dano was so good that I had assumed that his performance would garner him a major acting nomination. It did not and I am still flabbergasted by this travesty.

My taste in period dramas usually focused on stories set in the United States or Great Britain . . . with the occasional foray into France. I was very reluctant to tackle this latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel. But I was in the mood for something new and decided to watch the six-part miniseries. I am happy to say that despite some flaws, I ended up enjoying “WAR AND PEACE” very much, thanks to Andrew Davies’ screenplay, Tom Harper’s direction and an excellent cast led by Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.