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Andrew Davies isn't much of household name in the U.S., but he's the king of the BBC mini-series. His skillfully adapted scripts for Pride & Prejudice (the beloved Colin Firth version) and many, many more are peerless examples of classic novels done right--cunningly edited and shaped to let all the rich emotion and sharp intelligence spill over with zip and vigor. Bleak House is no exception; it's one of the best Dickens adaptations to date. The mini-series form allows Dickens' panoramic view, brimming with eccentric characters and complex turns of plot, to sprawl out without losing an iota of suspense or momentum. Two innocent young orphans (Patrick Kennedy and Carey Mulligan) are the potential heirs to a fortune, but their fates are snarled in a monumental legal battle known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. But the heart of the story is another orphan, Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose mysterious parentage proves to be intertwined with the fate of the Jarndyce wards and the aloof Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files). Dickens' story twines through an excoriating vision of the legal system to heartbreaking domestic drama to a murder investigation to near-Gothic horror, all broken into utterly delicious half-hour segments (after the hour-long opening episode). Martin is utterly beguiling, homely at one moment and luminous the next; Anderson's grippingly eerie and brittle performance will delight her fans. But to single out anyone seems absurd, because every character--from the vicious lawyer Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance, White Mischief) to the foppish parasite Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) to the simpering clerk Guppy (Burn Gorman)--is intricately drawn, all hitting a mesmerizing balance between caricature and stark emotional honesty. Bleak House demonstrates that humor, pathos, and social criticism can all be contained in one wonderfully entertaining package.

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WAE5166 Bleak House DVD (2005/Gillian Anderson) $39.98 $35.99