Picks and Pans Review: Bleak House

updated 01/23/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2006 01:00AM

PBS (Sundays, Jan. 22-Feb. 26, 9 p.m. ET)
DRAMA

Former X-Files star Gillian Anderson already proved herself an unexpectedly exquisite model for period fashion in 2000's House of Mirth, based on the Edith Wharton novel. In this superb six-week Masterpiece Theatre broadcast of Charles Dickens's thunderous 1852 gloomfest, adapted by Andrew Davies, she's Victorian perfection: the alabaster skin seems to have had all the color bled out by a life under clouds. She's Lady Dedlock, whose air of pained ennui hides one of several interconnected mysteries at the heart of a vast, often cruel story about wards caught up in an interminable inheritance dispute. The suit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, is a legal boa constrictor that threatens to loop around, entangle and finally strangle just about everyone. Somehow Dickens also manages to pack in blackmail, murder, scarlet fever and a man who spontaneously combusts—cheap gin ignited by moral rot.

It's rare that an adaptation allows a viewer to experience the full emotional brunt of Dickens's drama. This one does. Hearts don't just break. They're crushed. Anderson's extremely taut performance sometimes has more theatricality than the part calls for: In close-up, each tremor registers as if every inch of ground beneath her feet was going to give way. But in general the cast, which will be otherwise unfamiliar to most viewers, responds to Dickens's plot turns with a naturalness that's always gracious and often moving.

The only regret is that the original BBC broadcast, a big hit in Britain, aired in 15 installments, a half hour each: That might even better capture the tale's almost dizzy bursts of suspense.

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