I've lost count of the times TV writer-producers have cited Charles Dickens to me as an inspiration for their weekly labors. But you can see why when you get sucked into the grandly entertaining whirlpool of romance, tragedy and diabolical intrigue that is Bleak House (Jan. 22-Feb. 26, PBS), a sumptuous six-part return to classic form for Masterpiece Theatre.
This sprawling yarn of families caught in a legal limbo over a disputed will, with secrets and scandals everywhere, gives a splendid cast ample opportunity to create a gallery of vivid characters: rogues, fools, fops, heroes and villains rich and poor.
Most remarkable is The X-Files' Gillian Anderson in an elegantly stunning performance of quiet desperation as Lady Dedlock, whose buried past gives the story many of its suspenseful, emotional turns. The only bleak aspect to this miniseries is that it doesn't last forever.
The Ex-X-Files Agent Returns in a Dickens of a Miniseries
Gillian Anderson's exploring strange new territory again-though this time it's not from the other world but the Old World.
In her long-awaited comeback to television, Anderson trades in the tailored suits of an FBI Agent for the demure Victorian gowns of a 19th century aristocrat with a checkered past.
The Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House represents a 180-degree turn from The X-Files -- and the tough, skeptical Scully was far more resilient than Anderson's emotional, secretive Lady Dedlock.
"She has had to put up a facade over the years but it's eating away at her," says Anderson, 37. "Eventually, it turned her into quite a cold and self-serving woman."
If you think of Dickens as an author of lovable eccentrics, this Bleak House will surprise you-it's a dark tale told with whooshing jump cuts and scary music. An evil lawyer named Tulkinghorn is relentlessly pursuing Lady Dedlock's secret so he can humiliate her-as the fate of three orphans hangs in the balance.
British audiences and critics embraced the six part miniseries as a "masterpiece" when it aired there last fall. "It's an epic love story that has an incredible amount of suspense and intrigue," says director Justin Chadwick, who gives the credit to his famous leading lady. "Gillian brought such weight and depth to that character," he says. "She can do anything."
She was his top choice for the part, but she turned him down at first. "I didn't want to do television again," says Anderson, who spent nine years on the small screen. Friends in the business finally persuaded her to change her mind.
It didn't hurt that she was then living in England where the miniseries was shot. "I had always wanted to have a house in London, so I bought one and fixed it up for the first play that I did here (in 2002)," she says. Then she met her second husband, Julian Ozanne, a British filmmaker, and now spends most of her time abroad, along with her daughter from her marriage, Piper,11.
Putting on a British accent wasn't much of a challenge, since Anderson grew up in England. When she moved to Michigan at age 11, she was teased for the way she talked. "At first, it was kind of cool because I was from another country," she says. "But the other kids just couldn't understand me."
British actor Charles Dance, who plays Tulkinghorn, now counts himself among her biggest fans. "As good as The X-Files was, she's a much better actress than her work on that series would have you believe," he says. "She's fun to be with, but she goes about her business and takes her work very seriously."
The success, although, has come at a price for publicity-averse Anderson. "I used to be able to walk around the city quite incognito," she says. "All of a sudden I'm getting even more recognized than I was before." Piper however, is unfazed by her mother's notoriety. "She's ask me how things went at work, and how a scene went if she know's it's difficult, but the conversation is not about me being famous," Anderson says. Piper has happily indulged, though, in at least one perk of fame: going to the latest "Harry Potter" premiere.
So what would Scully think of Lady Dedlock's predicament? "I think she'd probably be frustrated by her and want her to just f--- the aristocracy!" she says. "Just tell the truth."
For Anderson, the truth will always be out there