PBS is airing the new BBC Bleak House in two-hour installments, instead of the original thirty minutes. I was a little worried that the breaks between episodes would be too apparent, but the transitions felt reasonably seamless. As one might expect, given how characters practically spill out from the novel's pages--I usually warn students that they might need to draw themselves a chart--the first two hours take a whiz! bang! zap! approach to the text, introducing us to most of the major players in what sometimes feels like haphazard fashion. Of course, screenwriter Andrew Davies has already had to cut much of the original narrative and many of the characters: Esther's childhood is reduced to a couple of brief flashbacks; understandably, much of Dickens' satire on philanthropy has gone, leaving us with a truncated (albeit suitably sloppy) Mrs. Jellyby and a disappointingly muted (even worse, childless) Mrs. Pardiggle; the various and sundry Dedlock hangers-on are nowhere to be seen. Viewers on the lookout for both fog--there's ample rain, perhaps to compensate--and Mr. Tulkinghorn's ceiling will be disappointed. And, as always, some actors don't seem to fit their characters' physical bill: Krook and Miss Flite, in particular, are both too substantial, and Jo seems a tad too healthy underneath his makeup.
At times, the film felt like the David Copperfield from a few years ago. Davies crams in most of the significant events, but he doesn't reinvent the novel's narrative structure or give us much time to reflect on what's taking place. There is, perhaps, a little too much foreshadowing at work--in particular, of Mr. Jarndyce's interest in Esther. Moreover, the random jostling of the opening hours is a nod in the direction of Dickens' complex network of coincidences, but we have no sense of the back-and-forth between the novel's two very different narrative voices. It's significant, for example, that Esther Summerson never actually appears in the third-person narrator's half of the text, but the film mostly tramples the divide between Esther's worldview and the other narrator's. The cinematographer compensates somewhat with the color schemes: while this is very much a period adaptation in All Black, All the Time mode, the washed-out Dedlock home contrasts with London's mud and grime and, in turn, Bleak House's occasional swatches of bright color. The sun even comes out at Bleak House!
This is one of those miniseries in which it feels like the entire English acting community (plus one American) puts in an appearance. There are a number of very strong performances here, most notably Charles Dance's singularly reptilian Tulkinghorn, Gillian Anderson's literally and figuratively emaciated Lady Dedlock, and Burn Gorman's grotesque Guppy. As Skimpole, Nathaniel Parker is suitably unctious. And Anna Maxwell Martin lends just enough bite to Esther to prevent her from becoming saccharine.
Interestingly, while the miniseries aims for an authentic "look," the score makes no attempt at period echoes, and the camera is rather more lively than is common in such adaptations. Granted, I could have done without some of the zooms, but the production team clearly wanted to eschew the stultifying "good taste" that frequently mars BBC adaptations. So far, the result has more snap than the shorter (almost by half) miniseries of twenty years ago.