PBS's painterly `Bleak House'

The BBC has done it again. In Charles Dickens's Bleak House (PBS, Sunday, Dec. 1, 9-10 p.m. and for seven succeeding Sundays, check local listings), what the British call Auntie Beeb has managed to translate another literary masterwork into pure television magic for WGBH/Boston's ``Masterpiece Theatre.''

``Bleak House'' is as grim as it is gorgeous. While it constitutes a scathing attack on Victorian England's class structure, especially its legal system, it manages to capture the feel and smell and sense of London as no other film has ever done. The fog and damp, the grim and grit, the smog and smudge of the awakening industrial age are caught with authentic precision by director Ross Devenish, camera-lighting expert Kenneth MacMillan, and designer Tim Harvey. So much so that it is really their miniser ies despite superb performances by Diana Rigg, Denholm Elliott, Suzanne Burden, and Richard Carstone. Even Dickens is overshadowed by the glory of the physical production.

Viewers may find themselves almost overwhelmed by the visual echoes of Turner, Sargent, Constable, Whistler, Dor'e, and de la Tour as the flickering screen synthesizes with utter perfection the murky candlelight, bonfires, and lanterns of the period. Each scene is sketched impeccably and then painted with muffled impressionist skill. One could almost turn down the sound, sit with a copy of Dickens's book on one's lap, and thoroughly appreciate the visual images on the screen without benefit of voices.

The plot of ``Bleak House'' is convoluted, involving the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, caught in the web of the slow-moving Court of Chancery for many years while the waiting heirs impatiently anticipate their fortunes as their personal lives unravel. Dickens wrote it as a serial, and characters come, go, and return, sometimes making it difficult to place them within the context of the story. Viewers may find themselves puzzled at times, by both the plot and the accents (fortunately there is Alistair Cooke to help with translations, etc.).

But there is always the unending series of beautiful scenes on the small screen, translating Dickens and Victorian England into an understandable landscape of both mind and geography.

Even if Dickens is not your kind of entertainment, ``Bleak House'' can be viewed as a peerless electronic picture gallery of London Victoriana.

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