Picks and Pans Review: Dickens

updated 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

PBS (Wed., Dec. 17, 8 p.m. ET)

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Hope it doesn't spoil your holiday season to hear that the man who gave us A Christmas Carol and a string of other classics was secretive, complicated and capable of insensitivity. This multilayered three-hour profile reveals a Charles Dickens who built a bedroom wall between himself and the wife he'd grown sick of.

Except for writer-narrator Peter Ackroyd, a novelist and Dickens biographer, this unconventional documentary dispenses with the usual on-camera experts. Instead we have a talented cast of actors—including Anton Lesser as Dickens, Miriam Margolyes as his abandoned wife, Catherine, and Natasha Little as his mistress Ellen Ternan—speaking to an unseen interviewer. The characters come alive, and their emotional wounds seem fresh. But you may grow uneasy with Ackroyd's intense interest in Dickens's extramarital activities. It's as if he were a gumshoe hired by Mrs. D. to get the goods.

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