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Bleak House (1920)


Main image of Bleak House (1920)
35mm, black & white, 6,400 ft, silent
DirectorMaurice Elvey
Production CompanyIdeal Film Company
ScriptWilliam J. Elliott
Original novelCharles Dickens

Cast: Constance Collier (Lady Dedlock); Helen Haye (Miss Barbay); Berta Gelardi (Esther Summerson); E. Vivian Reynolds (Tulkinghorne); A. Harding Steerman (Sir Leicester Dedlock); Clifford Heatherley (Bucket); Ion Swinley (Capt Hawdon)

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The story of Lady Dedlock's secret and the tragic consequences of its exposure.

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This interesting first proper attempt to adapt Dickens' Bleak House, by Maurice Elvey and the screenwriter William J. Elliott, makes a virtue of their strategy to delete several major parts of the story and a host of characters, and extract just one thread - the story of Lady Dedlock. An opening intertitle lays their cards on the table.

"'Bleak House', crowded with characters and incident, has provided material for a number of dramas. For this Picture we have chosen the most dramatic of all the tales embedded in the book - the story of the hunting down of Lady Dedlock and the discovery of her secret."

And indeed the twists and turns of the plot thread they have chosen is complex enough that the entire film is devoted to explaining the sequence of events, leaving little space for characterisation or action to lend the story the colour and vibrancy that distinguishes the book.

But although it might seem perverse to have a version of Bleak House without the defining framework of the Chancery suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the Lady Dedlock story is nicely contained and satisfying. Elliott adopts a tactic akin to that used by the celebrated screenwriter Eliot Stannard in his adaptations (such as the same year's Lady Audley's Secret), supplying the back-story at the start of the film so that the action runs more or less chronologically. Although the surprise is ruined (in the book, Lady Dedlock's past is revealed only very late in the narrative), this approach does create a certain suspense.

Stylistically, Elvey's direction is very much of its time: a bit pictorial, with reasonable sets and acting but rather fixed camera positions. An injection of energy is supplied by Clifford Heatherley, who plays Inspector Bucket with some vim, and if the writer takes a bit of licence with the Inspector's modern investigation methods at least it gives some pace to the denouement. As with so many early adaptations of Dickens' work, great emphasis is laid on the authentic visual rendering of the original from the illustrations, if not the text. Kine Weekly praised the film's design: "The costumes make up and scenic effects are all excellently modelled on Phiz's drawings".

It would not be until the television age, with multi-part dramas of running into many hours, that a real attempt could be made to adapt the complex and multi-layered work that is Bleak House.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. Tulkinghorn's suspicions (4:22)
2. Bucket investigates (8:30)
3. Lady Deadlock's flight (6:23)
Complete film (1:21:12)
Death of Poor Joe (1900/01)
Dickens on Film