Great Expectations

X Files' Gillian Anderson plays a ghostly Miss Havisham in BBC's Dickensian tale about an orphan named Pip.

This month marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens, a perfect excuse to indulge in one of his most celebrated works, Great Expectations.

But then, do we really need reason to marvel at his timeless tales, especially when the BBC gets behind it?

This 3 part miniseries was produced last year and it comes with an impressive roll-call. Ray Winstone as Magwitch, Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, Douglas Booth as (adult) Pip, Vanessa Kirby as Estella and David Suchet as Jaggers.

Great Expectations has been filmed for the screen since 1917 with equally impressive names including John Mills, Jean Simmons (twice), Roddy McDowall, Michael York, Anthony Hopkins, Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ioan Gruffudd, Charlotte Rampling and a feature from Mike Newell is coming this year.

This production is moody, opening on foggy British marshes as young orphan Pip (Oscar Kennedy) discovers an escaped convict Magwitch (Ray Winstone) whom he helps escape his chains. Pip’s sister and blacksmith husband are poor but wealthy spinster Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) invites the boy to befriend her adopted daughter Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small). There are indeed “great expectations” that fortune will eventually shine upon Pip.

Most of the screen time in the first episode is given over to Young Pip and Miss Havisham and their relationship by necessity. Kennedy is excellent as the young boy, never performing over the top as character actors with clearly more experience threaten to act him off the screen.

Anderson, best known to audiences as The X Files‘ Scully, has appeared in British dramas before (Bleak House, The House of Mirth, The Last King of Scotland) no doubt drawing upon the years she was raised in the UK. While other adaptations age Miss Havershim as a Dickensian witch, here she is a pallid, ghostly bride, left at the altar on her wedding day.

Anderson’s performance is breathy, hypnotic and without ever finishing a sentence in its entirety. After a while I found it annoying.

Towards the end of the episode we make the eventual time leap as actor Douglas Booth assumes the role of adult Pip. Not to take anything away from his performance, but it has to be said this man is distractingly pretty. With cheekbones and lips that outclass Helena Bonham Carter (and she’s not even in this series), Booth looks like a magazine model in a cast of wrinkly, character actors.

Like all good BBC dramas, the setting and costumes are splendid, although a gloomy grey hangs over this drama.

I’m not yet convinced how well it will stand the test of time against other adaptations, but it’s not without its attributes.

It’s easy to lose yourself in a classic Dickens tale and Great Expectations is always great entertainment.

Great Expectations begins 7:30pm Sunday on ABC1.

6 Responses

  1. I agree with Mr Darcy this adaptation does capture the Dickensian era well, highlighting the gulf between ordinary people and the “gentlemen”. The only character that doesn’t quite connect for me is the adult Estella. I have watched both episodes so far and can’t wait for the third and final episode.

  2. And there’s yet another big screen version of Great Expectations due for release later this year!

    Unfortunately, no-one is ever likely to improve on the 1940s David Lean version. This latest TV entry doesn’t even come close. It’s visually striking and Pip is pretty, but it’s otherwise marred by a succession of over-wrought and self-indulgent performances. Gillian Anderson is particularly annoying. She plays Miss Havisham like a heroin addict, lost in her own dream world and not actually connecting with the other characters. It kind of misses the point that Miss H. is manipulative and opportunistic (especially in misleading Pip), and living vicariously through Estella.

  3. i loved this adaptation when I saw it in the UK over Christmas. I like the darker, dirtier and gloomy dickens reworks. After all, that’s what it would have been like. It’s foreboding and creepy. Anderson is haunting as Miss Havisham.

  4. Another decade, another new Great Expectations adaptation. I’ve seen both the 1981 and 1999 series (the latter with Ioan Gruffudd) plus the 1946 film (with John Mills and Alec Guinness) and 1998 film (with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow).

    Will be interesting to see how this one stands up against those.

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