Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, Blu-ray (2005/2009)

by | Jul 30, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, Blu-ray (2005/2009)

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Lilo Baur, Pauline Collins, Charlie Brooks, Charles Dance, Denis Lawson, Harry Eden, Tom Georgeson, many others
Director: Justin Chadwick
Studio: BBC Worldwide 1000043861 (3 discs)
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color, 1080i HD
Audio: PCM Stereo, DD Stereo 2.0
Extras: Interviews, Commentaries, Previews
Subtitles: English
Feature Length: 461 minutes
Rating: ****

Bleak House has been roundly praised as one of Charles Dickens’ greatest novels; a sprawling, epic work, it was originally published in twenty installments, and captured the public’s imagination when first introduced in 1852. The novel is also widely considered to be one of the most accurate depictions of life in the Victorian era, and Dickens’ characteristic eye for detail painstakingly chronicled the perspectives of both the haves and have-nots of nineteenth century London. The narrative is filled with Dickens’ usual array of quirky and oddball characters who may not always be central to the story, but at the very least help flesh it out with their trials and tribulations. The BBC production from 2005 is a fifteen-part series, clocking in at not quite eight hours – quite a formidable undertaking in terms of viewing choices. Apart from its one-hour opening episode, the remainder of the series is comprised of half-hour installments, although it was shown here in the states over six nights on PBS.

At the center of the story is a lengthy litigation that’s been ongoing for some time in London’s Chancery courts, involving the settlement of the quite substantial estate of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Apparently, two wills exist and are in conflict with each other, and the rather tedious court proceedings are taking an extraordinarily lengthy period of time to reach a resolution. And the lives of quite a few players who would hope to benefit from the outcome hang in the balance. The central characters include Esther Summerson (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), a ward of the Jarndyce estate, who was born out of wedlock under questionable circumstances. She was raised by a harsh mistress known as Miss Barbary, who took every opportunity to belittle Esther and remind her that she was the ruin of her mother. Two other wards of the estate include the cousins Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who have become quite taken with each other and secretly allow their romance to blossom. Esther is Ada’s constant companion, and the three wards have been brought to Bleak House, the estate of John Jarndyce, another of the litigants in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. John Jarndyce has been made the legal guardian of the three wards.

A concurrent story to the Jarndyce litigants involves Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Honoria Dedlock (Gillian Anderson); she is also a named beneficiary of one of the Jarndyce wills. She’s some twenty years junior to Sir Leicester, and prior to their marriage had an affair with a Captain Hawdon and bore his child – a daughter, both of whom she has believed to be dead. As it turns out, Esther Summerson is Lady Dedlock’s long lost daughter, and the late Miss Barbary was the Lady Dedlock’s older sister. The Dedlock’s lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn (played to perfection by Charles Dance), is a very clever fellow, and his relentless pursuit of a resolution to the Jarndyce litigation on their behalf helps to shed a good deal of light on quite a few mysteries that have shrouded the lives and relationships of the various litigants. And of course, the Dedlock’s have a meddling and scheming French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, who has her own interest and agenda in the proceedings. Over the course of the fifteen episodes, a third will surfaces – and promises to finally bring a resolution to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Technically, this three disc set fares quite well. Although a very dark color palette is employed throughout (all those candle-lit Victorian interior shots are so dreadfully dark), the images maintain really good contrast and are very detailed. And while the colors are a bit on the cool side, skin tones were naturally rendered, and the entire series was quite pleasant to watch. Unfortunately, there’s no hi-res surround sound option available; the only audio choices include an uncompressed PCM stereo option and a Dolby 2.0 option. And while by no means reference quality, I found the sound quite serviceable, especially with a dialogue-heavy presentation like this one – the uncompressed PCM track sounded much more natural to me than the Dolby 2.0 option. Still, it would have been nice to at least have had the surround channels available to establish a tad more of a sense of envelopment.

Bleak House is a quite formidable novel, at nigh near a thousand pages of very small print, and the BBC did an exemplary job of capturing the essence of the book on screen. Still, there were moments where the director employed camera trickery (hazy, fuzzy shots, super-slo-mo and the like) to offer some plot exposition that had me regularly reaching for the remote to review the action I’d just seen. Fortunately, there’s a really good commentary track that offered not only insights into the making of the series, but also tidbits of information that helped advance the plot. And, in my book, it’s really hard to beat well done Dickens on the big screen, especially when the uber-talented BBC is involved. Very highly recommended – only the lack of a high-res surround audio track keeps this one from getting five stars.

— Tom Gibbs


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