Gillian Anderson Acts the Dickens out of 'Bleak House'
In her first television role since "The X-Files," Gillian Anderson heads a large and impressive cast in a six-part, eight-hour adaptation of "Bleak House," premiering Sunday, Jan. 22, on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" (check local listings). "Bleak House" will be released to DVD by BBC Video on Tuesday, Feb. 28, two days after the PBS finale of the miniseries.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies (A&E Network's 1996 "Pride and Prejudice") has done a masterful job of distilling Charles Dickens' sprawling novel, which used elements of romance, a detective story, political satire, comedy of manners and gothic thriller to keep Victorian-era readers on the edge of their seats when it was published in serial form in 1852-53. The PBS cast includes 80 actors with speaking parts acting out this gigantic but fast-paced story, which includes the most famous incident of human spontaneous combustion in all of literature.
At the center of Dickens' tale is the apparently interminable legal case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a thorny mountain of contested wills with an immense fortune at stake. Among the many claimants are Sir Leicester (Timothy West) and his icily beautiful wife, Lady Honoria Dedlock (Anderson). It is Lady Dedlock who sets the main plot into motion when she recognizes the handwriting on one of the legal documents, which was copied by a man who shares a startling secret with Honoria from her youth.
Charles Dance stars as Tulkinghorn, the Dedlocks' family attorney -- a man totally ruthless in his determination to discover Lady Dedlock's secret and use it to his own advantage.
When "Bleak House" premiered in October 2005 in the United Kingdom, it was greeted with virtually unanimous raves for the overall production -- which the critic for The Guardian compared favorably to "Brideshead Revisited" -- and Anderson's performance in particular.
"I bet I won't have been the only viewer unable to take her eyes off Gillian Anderson's bewitchingly haunted Lady Dedlock, the sort of woman over whom, in another era, ships would be launched and medium-sized wars waged," the critic for The Observer wrote.
Looking back now, Anderson finds it hard to believe she had to be talked into accepting the role.
"I never even had heard of the book before, I have to say ashamedly," the actress says by phone from England. "I didn't read it until after I had committed to do the project and had read the screenplay, which was so well-crafted. I really wanted to do it, but at the same time, it was television, and I wanted to get away from that for a while. If I did this, what would that mean; where would it take me? I was thinking about all those things, but I was assured that it was going to be a really good production, and certainly I have no regrets now that I said yes."
Having committed and studied the screenplay thoroughly, however, Anderson found this tremendously complicated character difficult to nail down before filming started.
"No, she wasn't easy to find, and I'm not really sure why," Anderson says. "I felt pretty solid about understanding what her journey was and the specifics of the story, but it was only when I finally put on the costume that she just kind of came alive for me, without further searching. I can't explain it; I don't know why. Justin Chadwick, who directed the first part of the series, is brilliant, but he works without a lot of explicit directions."
"Gillian just has it all," Chadwick says, "and she's so open and fearless, so dedicated to finding the moment of truth in every scene, and she always gets it -- and this is a very, very complicated emotional journey her character goes on.
"Look at that scene with Lady Dedlock and her daughter," he continues, referring to a heartbreaking scene in which Anderson's character is reunited with someone dear to her heart, only to tell her they must never see each other again. "The day after that episode aired (in the U.K.), the BBC Web page was just full of people chatting about it."
While playing this tragically constricted woman, Anderson says she looked for opportunities to hint at the impulsive and passionate woman Honoria had been in her youth.
"I think every once and awhile you get an inkling of who she was like," she says. "That scene when it's raining and they all come together for shelter and she reveals to Esther (a resident of Bleak House) that she had known Mr. Jarndyce before, in another incarnation, so to speak. There's a tiny bit of mischievousness there, a slight little view into who she might have once been, but you have to be very careful. You can't go too far with that.
"It comes out a little bit in her possessiveness toward Rosa (a maid), because you get a sense that there is a lot of passion in this woman and that is the only outlet. In every other aspect of her life, she just has to bind it all in."
While Anderson says she still believes there will be more "X-Files" films in her future, she says she is pleased for now to have this well-received portrait included in the "Masterpiece Theatre" gallery, especially for viewers who know her only as Special Agent Scully.
"Certainly, I used to watch 'Masterpiece Theatre' when I was little. All those things really appealed to me, along with things now like 'Gosford Park' and the Merchant-Ivory films," Anderson says.
"What I love most, I think, is that this gives people a chance to see me do something different, because for so many people, I am stuck in the context of 'The X-Files.' This new role is just so totally different that I hope it will expand some people's view of me as an actress.