Nothing can quite hold a candle to the dreary awfulness depicted so magnificently in this 2005 production.
By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
The news is nerve-wracking, it's hot as hell, and there's still a month to go before school resumes. Why not escape for a few hours into the charming world of Charles Dickens, as offered in Xtra Hot's new BBC rendering of Bleak House. Believe us, you'll feel better.
Thrust into the dark world of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a seemingly endless legal dispute seeking to determine just who will inherit a fortune that has been going on for generations, you'll soon realize things aren't so bad, after all, even if the air conditioning just went on the fritz and your chatterbox cousins from the North are camped out in your guest room.
Nothing can quite hold a candle to the dreary awfulness depicted so magnificently in this 2005 production. Indeed, when the coach bearing the heroine of the story, Esther Summerson, came roaring down the pike, we thought we'd turned in Deadwood by mistake.
The BBC's pulled out all the stops to get the detail of the shadowy tale - which we read for our English Lit class many years ago, but fortunately can't remember the end of right now - just right.
You can almost smell the stuffiness of the court rooms where the trial's taking place at a snail's pace, forcing the court to send two young wards, Aida and Richard, to stay at their cousin John Jarndyce's country estate, Bleak House, until the matter of their possibly inheriting a fortune can be sorted out.
But that's just a smidgeon of the intricate plot, where almost every character seems to have a secret. Esther's is linked to her birth, with an aunt telling her grimly: "Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace and you are hers."
Next is Lady Dedlock (yes, that's Gillian Anderson of X Files fame), another party to the case, who's married well but has a mysterious past. "Bored to death with my life," she's in for a shock.
That's supplied by the secretive Mr. Nemo, whose gift at penmanship has him working on copying documents for the trial for the offices of Mr. Tulkinghorn (the incredible Charles Dance). Nemo's landlord, the drunkard Mr. Crook, adds to the mystery by explaining to a visitor about his strange tenant: "Some say he sold his soul to the devil! But if he has, I don't know what he's done with the money!"
When Lady Dedlock accidentally gets a look at one of those documents, she faints away, later comparing the handwriting to that on a loveletter she has hidden in her boudoir. Imagine - they MATCH!!!
On the sidelines of this wonderful plot are a host of wonderful characters whom only Dickens could create. One of our favorites is Mr. Guppy, the law clerk with the ink-smudged nose, who takes a fancy to Esther. Trying to summon up his nerve before proposing to her, he almost falls over trying to sit down to rest for a moment and gather up his courage as she approaches. Spurned, at least for now, our crushed Guppy can only hand her "my card, without prejudice ... my angel!"
There's also Miss Flite (Pauline Collins, who once appeared in Upstairs, Downstairs), a strange character given to muttering to herself and looking to latch on to those who might win the financial judgment, and Mr. Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries), a friend of John Jarndyce's, who proudly states he has "no aptitude for work of any kind - none whatsoever" and lives off the kindness of strangers.
Dickens also takes aim at the do-gooders of high society, trying desperately to make right a society that has spun out of control. That help isn't always welcome, as when a nasty bricklayer tells one such do-gooder, asking if he's read the Bible she left: "I've been drunk for three days - if I'd have the money, I'd been drunk four."
What makes the production so special is its attention to detail and overall spookiness: lightning storms when called for; opium dens featuring thick smoke and an eerie musical score; or a simple pounding heart beat when Lady Dedlock first notices that familiar handwriting on the legal document.
The adaptation for the screen by Andrew Davies, who's made a career of adapting thick British novels for the screen, is superb, and the direction on the money, with the camera going for lots of close-ups that make viewers feel they're right there in the poor house, courtroom, or stately mansion with the characters.
Adding to the fun is a cast of stellar British and other actors. While Anderson may be the best known here for her role as Fox Mulder's assistant, the best of the UK's film and stage talent - Timothy West and the great Ian Richardson (House of Cards) among others - is on display here, clearly having fun telling Dickens's tale of a rotten legal system and the yawning gaps in British society of the period.
Will Aida and Richard win the case and inherit a fortune? Will Esther ever find out just who her mother was? Will Mr. Guppy win Esther? Will Lady Dedwood's connection to Nemo be revealed? And just why is Mr. Jarndyce really being so nice to everyone?
Tune in next week to the next installment in Xtra HOT's Tuesday night (22:45) summer series, far better than any telenovella to which you might be addicted.
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