This might sound strange in today’s era of instant gratification, but those who wade through the slow-going first three or four hours of this stately production will be richly rewarded by the engrossing final four. Sumptuously produced — and graced with a sprawling cast that includes “The X-Files'” Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, the original desperate housewife — this is “Masterpiece Theatre’s” second stab at Charles Dickens’ convoluted classic. It takes a while to become acclimated to the interlocking characters and baroque Dickensian flourishes, but once that kicks in, as the Brits say, it’s bloody good.
More expansive than the PBS showcase’s 1985 version featuring Denholm Elliot and Diana Rigg, this latest adaptation by writer Andrew Davies (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) brings a dark flair to Dickens’ dense tale of a disputed will and closely guarded secrets, set against the class-riven beautiful estates of the upper crust and squalor of the impoverished.
At the heart of the story, originally published in serialized form in the 1850s, is the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a battle over a large estate that has languished in the courts for years. Two potential heirs to the fortune, Richard (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada (Carey Mulligan), are taken in by the wealthy John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), who urges them not to follow the road to madness and obsession by pursuing the case.
Joining Ada as her companion is Esther (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose mysterious origins include being born out of wedlock and abandoned by her mother. All this will figure prominently as the action unfolds, involving the wealthy Lady Dedlock and her wealthy husband’s cruel, manipulative lawyer, Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), who zeroes in on a secret Lady Dedlock has been hiding, leading to a deep pain she labors to conceal.
Along the way, there will be a murder with no shortage of suspects, a smallpox scare, a few other related deaths — including that of a mystery man tied to both the will and Lady Dedlock — and a trio of proposals for Esther, the story’s moral center. Nicely played by Maxwell Martin, poor Esther pines for the dashing Dr. Woodcourt (Richard Harrington) but must endure the punishments of the damned before anything approaching happiness can come her way.
Slow and murky at first, the narrative (presented in half-hour segs in the U.K.) builds momentum in its later hours. Viewing the entire story in close proximity, as critics can, helps, so some might be inclined to wait for the DVD. On PBS, the production will play out over six weeks, with two-hour installments bracketing the weekly hours in between.
Anderson, who has kept a relatively low profile since “The X-Files,” disappears into her role as the tormented Lady Dedlock, who mutters at the outset that she is “bored to death with my life,” haunted by a secret that really isn’t much of one. Dance, meanwhile, is perfectly hissable as the reptilian barrister, steamrolling over anyone who crosses his path, and Lawson is excellent as the kindly Jarndyce, whose stiff upper lip keeps him from speaking his mind for a good four hours.
“Masterpiece Theatre” remains a rare pleasure for PBS, the shiny franchise that plays to an appreciative older crowd and doesn’t provoke cries of liberal bias. Should they look closer, though, conservative ideologues doubtless will have a real beef with this Dickens fellow, who seems to have strong opinions about the unfairness of the legal system and mistreatment of the poor.