Refuge in "Bleak House"
Posted at 8:26 AM (PST) on Saturday, February 4, 2006

Masterpiece Theatre's languid take on the Dickens classic is a refreshing break from our sound-bite, bloggified culture.

By Stephanie Zacharek
February 4, 2006


In the past few weeks I've had numerous conversations with people, some of whom haven't looked at Masterpiece Theatre in years, who suddenly found themselves hooked on this British-made Charles Dickens adaptation, currently airing on PBS. (The series began with a two-hour opener on Jan. 22 and will continue through the month of February, ending on the 26th.) That's what happened to me: I turned the show on, never having read the book, and almost immediately slipped into its world.

Bleak House" will be available on DVD on Feb. 28, almost immediately after the series completes its TV run. But nearly everyone I know who has begun to watch the show prefers to see it the old-fashioned way, on successive Sunday nights, as it airs -- a way of approaching Dickens' work that's not far off from the way his earliest reading public would await each installment of his newspaper serials. Dickens' biographer Edgar Johnson has written about how American fans waited at the docks in New York, shouting out to the crew of an incoming ship, "Is Little Nell dead?"

This "Bleak House" is peopled with a vast assortment of characters, all beautifully cast -- and in any Dickens adaptation, that's only the first hurdle, but it's a crucial one.

And will any good come to, or from, the story's most mysterious and compelling character, Lady Dedlock (her name itself an obvious Dickensian metaphor), played with chilly (and yet potentially heart-rending) elegance by Gillian Anderson? Anderson, beloved by fans of "The X-Files," has worked on the London stage but has barely made a blip in the movies, despite the astonishing performance she gave as Lily Bart in Terence Davies' flawed but affecting "House of Mirth." "Bleak House" restores Anderson to us TV watchers, while also giving her a role perfectly suited to her age, her abilities and her chiseled-from-marble profile.

In the first episode of "Bleak House," Lady Dedlock stares from the window of her well-appointed Lincolnshire house; her eyes tell us little, next to nothing. But in them, we can see specters of all her dark, matte secrets -- we just can't get a good enough look at those specters to understand them, or identify them. She says, to no one in particular but possibly to her husband, the much older Sir Leicester (Timothy West), who has married her for love, that she is bored. She elongates the word bored as if she were drawing a threaded needle through a patch of drab linen, as if the mere enunciation of it were a tiresome task. Her bearing is dignified almost to the point of being stiff; she carries herself like a moving version of those spooky draped figures found on Victorian gravestones.

Which is apt, because although Lady Dedlock appears to be alive, there is something in her that is already dead, something that has been killed off or snuffed out. And yet as we look into her drably glittering eyes -- or when, in Episode 2, we stare in amazement at the fiery glare set alight in them when she first catches sight, in church, of the dewily alive Esther -- we realize that whatever has died in Lady Dedlock has only made whatever life remains more desperately vital. Does Lady Dedlock mean well, or does she intend evil? Anderson doesn't signal her character's intentions in this performance; instead, she makes us wait for more. We're her willing lapdogs, ready for whatever morsels she cares to dish out.

In "Bleak House," Dickens explains that Lady Dedlock had no significant family background, but did have "beauty, pride, ambition" and "insolent resolve." After her marriage, "wealth and station soon floated her upward." His description of her manners and appearance follows that explanation, and Anderson, with her almost excruciating stillness, is a breathing manifestation of his prose:

"How Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer, everybody knows -- or has some reason to know by this time, the matter having been rather frequently mentioned. My Lady Dedlock, having conquered her world, fell, not into the melting, but rather into the freezing mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity, an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victory. She is perfectly well-bred. If she could be translated to Heaven to-morrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture."

After watching Episode 2 of "Bleak House," I now think I have some idea of where the story is going, and of at least some of the secrets that Lady Dedlock is suffering with. But I'm sure, in places at least, I'll be proved wrong. For these next four Sundays, I'll be turning the pages, figuratively speaking, with many other viewers, and on Feb. 26, I'll close the cover at last.

And then, instead of feeling confident that I already know the story backward and forward, I anticipate reading the novel for real -- alone, as we always are with a book, and yet not alone at all.

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