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'Bleak House' is Dickens done right

When it comes to PBS's six-part ''Bleak House," it's hard to know where to aim the praise first. At Charles Dickens, whose serial novels were TV before TV was TV and whose wicked plot denouements make ''Law & Order" look like ''Duh & Disorder"? Or at Andrew Davies, the ace screenwriter who adapts Austen and Trollope and Eliot without pruning their souls? Or at the supporting British actors who form a population of vivid freaks in this lovingly crafted ''Masterpiece Theatre," which starts Sunday at9 p.m. on Channel 2?

No, Gillian Anderson gets the first gush, seemingly even more at home in the hollow estates of Victorian England than among the dark hallways of ''The X-Files."

Looking icily funereal, Anderson is indelible as Dickens's Lady Dedlock, entrapped by the mistakes of her past. Lady Dedlock suffers every moment of her dreary life, frozen-faced at a window as if in mourning for her own spirit. And Anderson suffers magnificently, with more world-weariness in her visage than you might expect from an actress famous for her network appeal. She pronounces Lady Ded-lock's sentences in a slow sigh, with unbearably weighty sorrow. Anderson doesn't have the most screen time in ''Bleak House," but she effectively casts tragedy and regret over the whole thing.

Where does Lady Dedlock fit into Dickens's master plan, which unfolds within an epic legal wrangling known as Jarndyce v. Jarndyce? You don't want to know, and if you know from the novel or from the 1985 TV adaptation with Diana Rigg, then you probably don't want to hear it again. It's amazing to watch Davies spill out the pieces of Dickens's puzzle in this miniseries, then link them together for us slowly, one by one, character by character, motive by motive. Grant me the indulgence of noting that ABC's ''Lost" operates similarly, as mystery and action in the present tense are shaped by an unfolding backstory. If ''Lost" can finish even a fraction as satisfyingly as a Dickens plot, it will be a TV miracle.

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the case of two contested wills and as-yet unawarded riches, joins together socioeconomic classes in typical Dickensian fashion, from the vile moneylender Smallweed (Philip Davis) to Dedlock's wealthy husband, Sir Leicester (Timothy West). The Jarndyce case has also kept the legal community flush in fees for a long time, which may be why the movie's loathsome heavy, the fierce lawyer Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), relishes prolonging it. The leeches of London -- including a drunken landlord named Krook -- need to feed on the blood of the legal system, and Tulkinghorn is there for them. As Tulkinghorn, Dance is as dazzlingly bottled-up as Anderson, but with venom inside.

The lighter side -- and there always is in Dickens -- is represented in ''Bleak House" by a makeshift family assembled by a fine gentleman named John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson). As realistic as Dickens could be, as bad-toothed and grubby as his poor beggars looked, as cruelly abused as his waifs often were, he liked to fold in a happy amount of innocence and romance. John Jarndyce has taken under his wing two attractive young wards in the legal case, Ada (Carey Mulligan) and Richard (Patrick Kennedy). He has also brought to his home the real heroine of the movie, Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), who is Ada's paid companion, her contemporary, and her moral adviser.

While Anderson is the embodiment of gloom and doom, Martin is all bright pluck as Esther. She makes Esther's extreme modesty likable, rather than cloying, and she quietly steals every scene she's in. She staunchly resists becoming one of Dickens's cardboard young women. Martin has an extraordinary face -- round, with ultra-plain eyes and a pure smile, and yet somehow electric with feeling. Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is a black hole, as it sucks possible inheritors such as Ada and Richard into its web of hope and despair. But Martin's Esther stands as its antithesis, a model of self-sufficiency.

Every quirky little character in ''Bleak House" has been expertly brought to life. Nathaniel Parker from ''The Inspector Lynley Mysteries" is unnervingly slippery as the willfully amoral Skimpole; Burn Gorman is all pathos and slapstick as his jittery law clerk Guppy tries to climb the social ladder; and Pauline Collins is kindly ethereal as Miss Flite, waiting for ''the day of judgment," legal and otherwise. They are the sorts of comic grotesques you need to find in Dickens, to be able to laugh amid all the grief, smallpox, opium addiction, thievery, child abuse, snobbery, and, yes, murder.

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