Contemporary culture often views a drama’s moral complexity as an indicator of its quality. The Sopranos is, I think, one of the best examples of that. We point to how Tony was sympathetic and recognizably human despite the fact that he was a murderous mobster as evidence of the show’s sophistication. Ethical shades of gray have become shorthand for artistic merit, and that’s reasonable, I guess, to a point. Progressing beyond cookie-cutter characters and recognizing the fallibility of heroes require some degree of maturity.
But that line of thinking can easily be oversimplified and perverted. Merely trying to turn an villain into a hero isn’t in and of itself a marker of quality, and using patently archetypal characters doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of depth or value. I thought about that latter point, in particular, as I watched the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens is so broad by today’s standards—with saintly, self-effacing protagonists and vile, duplicitous antagonists—and yet Bleak House is a skillfully told, thoroughly absorbing tale. I sped through eight hours’ worth of Victorian melodrama as quickly as Netflix would send me the next DVD.
Inspired largely by Dickens’s unhappy experiences as a law clerk, Bleak House centers around a convoluted legal dispute over a wealthy man’s will. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has persisted for generations, dashing the hopes of the many potential heirs while enriching their many lawyers. Into this mire comes Esther Summerson (the principal saintly, self-effacing protagonist), a young woman of uncertain birth hired by the wealthy and magnanimous John Jarndyce to serve as a companion for one of those potential Jarndyce heirs. But Esther has problems of her own, too. She believes her murky pedigree makes her unlikely to find a husband, particularly a good man such as the philanthropic local physician whom she admires. Her own charitable endeavors endanger her health when she takes in a sickly, feverish boy from off the streets. And her encounters with the mysterious Lady Dedlock, usually coolly self-possessed yet visibly disconcerted around Esther, are confusing and unnerving. A lesser person might fall into self-pity, but Esther busies herself with the plight of those less fortunate, everyone from orphaned street urchins to a sweet but demented bird lady to the hapless wards of Jarndyce.
Sneering cynically at selfless, virtuous Esther is all too easy (I know—I did so in an earlier draft, which is not to my credit), but doing so is unfair, especially in this adaptation. Anna Maxwell Martin finds Esther’s underlying steeliness, her tendency to deny her own desires not because she believes she doesn’t deserve them but because she believes she won’t be granted them. Yet despite her diffidence, Esther doesn’t allow people to take advantage of her. A shrewd judge of character, she is active rather than passive, ready to contend with injustice even with her limited means. Esther’s modesty and self-denial make her a Victorian ideal, yes, but with her mettle and resourcefulness, she is still personable and appealing.
This is not to say that Bleak House is nuanced—it’s not. Essentially a romantic saga crossed with a diatribe against the nineteenth-century British legal system, it features characters that can be neatly sorted into good and bad. Of course everyone isn’t the paragon that Esther is. We have, for example, the good but weak (indecisive young Richard Carstone), good but creepy (unctuous law clerk William Guppy), and good but crazy (bird-loving Miss Flite), but in the end, it’s clear who is on the side of angels and who is not. Half the time, Dickens’s names make it obvious. With a name like Smallweed, the moneylender just has to be a bad piece of work.
But what Bleak House lacks in shades of gray it makes up for with vividness of color, and here the talented cast really shines. Denis Lawson beautifully communicates the sadness underneath John Jarndyce’s sunny benevolence. Pauline Collins brings a wistful, almost poetic quality to poor Miss Flite. Patrick Kennedy doesn’t shy away from Richard Carstone’s weakness and immaturity but still manages to show us why people love him. And Charles Dance’s menacing Mr. Tulkinghorn—the manipulative, power-hungry lawyer from hell—is as cruel and terrifying as a villain from a horror movie.
The true standout, however, is not one of the talented British character actors (whom I haven’t even begun to name—it’s a large, gifted cast) but American expatriate Gillian Anderson, best known for playing Dana Scully on The X-Files. As Scully, Anderson perfected the art of leaking pain and passion throw tiny cracks in a wall of stoicism, and as Lady Dedlock, she makes great use of that same talent. Holding herself very still and speaking in hushed tones, she is a model of self-restraint, yet the torment of long-buried secrets can still be seen in a flicker of her eyes or in a too deliberately drawn breath. Even though Lady Dedlock’s secret is obvious to us, the audience, the moment in which she finally reveals it is a powerful one, with ragged emotion spilling out and being bound back up all at once.
Watching only a few minutes of the miniseries reveals that its name is misleading. Rich with detail and emotion, the show is hardly bleak, not even visually. One might expect a staid, Masterpiece Theatre style, but instead Bleak House revels in lush, dramatic images and, during the more suspenseful scenes, careens forward as if in a horror movie. The style is almost pulpy, a delicious reminder that Dickens didn’t write for the literary elite but for a general audience who hung on cliffhangers as he released his serialized novels just a few agonizingly short chapters at a time.
Morally complex it’s not, but there’s something to be said for the larger-than-life personalities and evocative, well-wrought storytelling of Bleak House. Moreover, it’s good, on occasion, to visit characters such as Esther—the kind of characters who remind us to set aside cynicism, to greet unsullied heroes with smiles rather than sneers, to use the word humanity not to evoke our fallen, corrupt nature but to describe the generously, benevolently, perfectly humane.