Doctor Sarah Blakeney has just examined a well loved patient who has been found dead in the bath with her wrists slit and her head jammed into a scold's bridle - a medieval torture device for silencing nagging women. The doctor leaves the bathroom,folds her arms and just stares blankly into the middle-distance. This gaze, held for just eight seconds, manages to conjure up a thesaurus of emotions: shock, sadness, sickness, sorrow.
It is a minor Miranda Richardson masterpiece. As this scene from BBC1' s forthcoming Scold's Bridle proves, she is able to say more with one wistful look than lesser performers can with a whole page of dialogue. "I remember one critic wrote that `Miranda Richardson has a face like an English sky'," the actress recalls. "That's a nice phrase. You know how an English sky can go from April showers to sunshine to flat and grey with clouds scudding across it to clear again?"
Most often, of course, Richardson's face has reflected the dark storm clouds of extreme passion. If the title hadn't already been patented, a biopic of her career might well have been named "Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown". Think of such moving portrayals of people on the brink as the murderously jealous Ruth Ellis in Dance with a Stranger, TS Eliot's unhinged partner in Tom and Viv, the outrageous femme fatale in A Dance to the Music of Time or the furiously wronged wife in Damage (aperformance which won her an Oscar nomination).
There is a feral, almost scary quality about Richardson's screen freak- outs; one newspaper called her "the most combustible actress talent of her generation". She does breakdowns better than the AA. Mike Newell, who directed Richardson in Dance with a Stranger, the actress's mesmerisingly strung-out film debut in 1984, reckons that "she is someone who lives on her nerves a lot of the time. It's extremely exposed and very subtle and comes from very detailed observation. She is like a wind- chime - she holds herself up to all the emotions that are blowing".
Richardson is the first to admit that this sort of brittle, emotional exposure gives her a buzz. "Those roles are often great fun to play. Dance with a Stranger was strangely enjoyable. Because Ruth Ellis was so outspoken and perverse, she shook people up. In the same way, Viv in Tom and Viv seemed free because she told the truth. By contrast, it was everyone else who was a messed-up and repressed victim of society." Richardson made a similar impact as a seriously deranged IRA terrorist in Neil Jordan's Oscar-winning The Crying Game. "The film lifted up the stone to show these rich characters. We were like a circus troupe visiting from the underbelly of life."
In much of her work, Richardson cultivates an outsider status. She seems drawn to characters on the margins - or beyond - who specialise in giving audiences a jolt. "I like people to be surprised by the turn of events. I don't want things just to bepat and formulaic. If there's some sort of internal combustion in the character or a desire to change the way things are going, that makes for conflict, which is the essence of drama."
Such deliberate unpredictability has not made her top of Hollywood' s wish-list. She has had quirky parts in off-beat American films such as Evening Star, opposite Shirley MacLaine, The Apostle, with Robert Duvall, and Robert Altman's Kansas City, but you can hardly imagine Hollywood studio bigshots sitting round chomping on their cigars and exclaiming: "Hey, let's get in that Richardson girl who does wacko so well to play Tom Cruise's main squeeze. "The feeling would appear to be mutual. In a spectacular moment of independence (in other words Hollywood suicide), Richardson rejected the Glenn Close role in Fatal Attraction, dismissing it as "crap".
I can only imagine how certain people in Hollywood organise their days, and it's horrific to me, absolutely horrific. Who wants to be in this bubble, this balloon full of hot air? Who wants to be in a world where absolutely nothing means anything?" Richardson's history of conflicted characters makes her latest choice of role all the more intriguing. Dr Blakeney in The Scold's Bridle, a typically creepy chiller from Minette Walters, is by Richardson' s standards a picture of respectability.
"It was fun to play Mrs Normal," she laughs (yes, she does laugh), "just in case anyone thought I couldn't. She's so down-to-earth, she deals with everything. She doesn't go over the edge." Now there' s a turn-up for the books.
Richardson doesn't give many interviews. You get the impression that she'd far rather be giving herself root canal surgery without anaesthetic. Time spent with her seems to involve quite a bit of heavy sighing. At one point during our exchange, she complains that answering questions is "like an exam".
But stony-faced curmudgeon Richardson isn't. In fact, she would like to be offered more comedy. "I always feel I can do it. Everything I do has comic elements to it. There is, for example, comedy in Ruth Ellis's pretensions, and Viv is able to find humour in her situation."
Richardson almost squeaks with delight when remembering her finest comic hour in Ben Elton's and Richard Curtis' deathless - and endlessly repeated - Elizabethan series of Blackadder. "It was wonderfully put together. The scripts were very detailed and arcane. It was the combination of, if you like, Ben the yobbo and Richard the scholar. The same elements are in Monty Python. It was scholarly, wide-ranging and mentally adept as well as wild and woolly. That sort of anarchy is very English. "
Richardson took delicious pleasure in her role as the supremely scatty Queenie. "It was her infantilism that I so enjoyed. She was having a go at being grown-up, but she came to the throne ridiculously early and never really got over it. She was pretty inadequate with men; if she couldn't have a man, she'd just kill him." Whether it be low comedy or high drama, the 39-year-old Richardson's knack is to empathise with a part to such an extent that you can no longer tell where the actress ends and the character begins. "You try to get inside someone's thought process or under their skin. It's to do with compassion - you have to feel what they feel."
This ability to merge with the role has given Richardson an enviably wide range - not for nothing has she been dubbed "Britain's answer to Meryl Streep". However, she still hopes that her performances always contain the vital element, guaranteed to keep audiences held - surprise. "The old definition of a star is someone who is comforting because you know exactly what you're going to get from them. I don't know if people ever know what they're going to get from me."
`The Scold's Bridle' is on BBC 1 at 9.35pm today.