Friday, July 30, 2010

Bleak House

BBC TV 2005

The length of a movie is a relative thing. This one at eight hours viewed over a single day definitely left me with a tinge of disappointment because it ended too soon for me. It is a fifteen episode serial which was first shown twice a week and achieved a peak viewer-ship of seven millions and led the viewer figures in most of the episodes. The soap opera format is particularly appropriate since Dickens (1812-70) was targeting a mainstream audience and the novel was serialized in twenty segments in during 1852-3. It is a flawless film which sucks us into the enchanted vision of Dickens. It has the dignity, grace and balance of a painting and all the acting roles I can think of have been done with naturalness, sensitivity and realism. The English language flows limpidly and musically as it can only from British actors--between Dickens and the BBC the movie gives us a  portrait of the language in its most native habitat. After seeing scores of American films or many modern British ones with their hard to decipher accents and colloquialisms, it is a delight to encounter English of such crystalline purity.

The case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, over the inheritance of a considerable fortune has been going on for generations. There are many conflicting wills. Claimants have died and new ones have been born but the wheels of justice grind on with no conclusion in sight. The film captures the intertwining lives of a group of characters --claimants, lawyers, policemen, a rag and bottle merchant, contentious aristocrats, maidservants and butlers, an opium addict with a romantic past--caught in the background of pre-Victorian England. To spice things up we have a murder mystery. Each of the segments ends at a cliff-hanger and the suspense and the eagerness to know what comes next never falters.

In this process we get a glimpse of British society of the era and I believe an insight into the British temperament. The strictly hierarchical character of British society comes out very forcefully. Hierarchical and yet egalitarian as we see a police inspector invade the house of an aristocrat with aplomb in the course of his duties and all but arrest the lady of the house--with due respect and ceremony of course. In fact the the hierarchical and casteist structure in British India, with the white-man as a kind of super albeit unclean cast at the apex of the power structure, may reflect the almost militaristic-ally rigid composition of British society. We in India seem to be stuck more or less in the hoary and rusty judicial system depicted. Dickens is said to be a social realist and a critic of the society in which he lived but even so, the setup comes out as one in which law and order is well established and crime may not be committed with nonchalant assurance of impunity. The fear of the law and order machinery is clearly visible.

Dicken's macabre sense of humor is insidiously omnipresent even in the most serious moments. Bucket the police inspector enjoys a few glasses of choice wine at the expense of the newly murdered corpse. The characters belonging to the lower rungs of society are sketched with exaggerated brush strokes but even the crooks are lovable and interesting. At the heart I think is Dickens love for humanity in all it's manifestations. He draws the entire spectrum of humanity--both prince and pauper-- into his enfolding embrace. None is spared from his gentle barbs of satire.

The acting is uniformly brilliant. The three female leads are outstanding in their restrained charisma. There is not one in the galaxy of characters who can be faulted or who is less than memorable, in many cases the minor characters even more than the major ones. Guppy, Skimpole, Miss Flite, Smallweed, Krook, Tulkinghorn are each of them unmistakeable in their Dickensian ancestry and created here for us by a  film-maker who knows his Dickens as well as he does film-making. One of the miracles of this film which makes it difficult to dispense praise is the fluidity of symbiosis which makes the machinery of the cast operate seamlessly like a lubricated machine. Well, half the credit goes to Charles Dickens for having created a universe growing so much out of it's native English soil that the actors slip into their roles as easily and comfortably as into a pair of worn shoes.

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