Masterpiece Classic’s Great Expectations (2011) by Charles Dickens

Title: Great Expectations
Studio/Distributor: PBS
Directors: Brian Kirk
Principle Cast: Douglas Booth, Gillian Anderson, Ray Winstone, David Suchet, Vanessa Kirby
Length: Approx. 3 hours
Released: 2012
Stars: 3.5

The classic coming-of-age novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens has been interpreted on film at least a dozen times for both television and the cinema including director Stuart Walker’s adaptation in 1934, David Lean’s in 1946 and Alfonso Cuarón’s in 1998.  In the 2011 BBC Masterpiece Classic three part mini-series, the screenplay is written by Sarah Phelps and director Brian Kirk leads a top notch cast of thespians to once again tell the tale of an orphan boy named Pip who is bequeathed great expectations of wealth by a mysterious benefactor who changes his life forever.

I’ve never read the book so I can’t give an all-encompassing review, but I saw the 1998 version of Great Expectations starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke and wasn’t impressed.

However, this Gothic version of Dickens’ story is an above-average rendition because of the stellar performances by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, Bleak House) as Miss Havisham, Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, London Boulevard) as Abel Magwitch, David Suchet (Hercule Poirot) as Jaggers and Jack Roth (son of Tim) as Dolge Orlick.  I wish I could honestly say that young Douglas Booth’s (LOL, The Pillars of the Earth) performance as lead character Pip moved me, but I was totally distracted by his looks.  He’s a very pretty, GQ-type, effeminate man…too pretty for the part, too pretty to believe that he’d fall for Vanessa Kirby’s Estella and too pretty to fit in with the rest of the cast.  This is one of those instances where a man’s good looks actually don’t work for him.  That being said, he gave a decent performance and I’d be interested to see him in another role.

A dramatic mystery with a romantic subplot, authentic sets, striking costumes and superb cinematography, Great Expectations begins eerily with a thick fog hanging over a marsh as a man slowly rises out of the water while a little boy tries to clear weeds and brush away from a gravestone in the English countryside.  We discover that the man is an escaped prisoner who threatens the boy within an inch of his life if he reveals his whereabouts and orders Philip “Pip” Pirrie to go back to his sister’s home at the forge where his brother-in-law Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley) has a blacksmith shop, to retrieve a file, so that he can get out of his leg irons.  Pip’s sister “Mrs. Joe” (Claire Rushbrook) beats Pip and considers him a burden and a nuisance while her brother Pumblechook (Mark Addy), driven by greed, would gladly sell him to the highest bidder, but Joe loves him and wants to train him to become a blacksmith.  Not only does Pip help Abel Magwitch escape, but he brings him a piece of mutton pie.  Magwitch is soon apprehended by local policemen but he doesn’t reveal Pip’s actions and never forgets his kindness.  We haven’t seen the last of him and neither has Pip.

Not long after, Pip is sent to the ghoulish Satis House for weekly visits with the ghostly Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella.  Satis House is a creepy, dusty old mansion that houses the mad mistress who seems to slowly be fading away, both mentally and figuratively.  A very thin Gillian Anderson gives one of the best performances of her career.  You can’t take your eyes off her whenever she’s on screen and Miss Havisham’s inevitable self-immolation will linger in your memory after the credits have rolled.

Pip quickly falls in love with Estella (which was hard for me to believe based on her character), and realizes that he must become more than a blacksmith’s apprentice if he ever hopes to win her heart.  However, Miss Havisham, “a bride-to-be who was jilted at the altar years before and still wears her wedding dress amidst the fossilized ruins of her wedding feast, goes to great lengths to ensure that Estella will never risk heartbreak, and raises her as a tool for vengeance.”  She decides to pay Joe Gargery for Pip’s apprenticeship as a blacksmith and tells Pip that he is no longer welcome at Satis House.

Seven years later, Pip is informed by London solicitor Jaggers that he has inherited a fortune but he must abandon his life at the forge and become a gentleman in London society.  Episode 1 ends with Pip making a visit to Miss Havisham to let her know that he’s going to do her proud and become the sort of man that Estella (who was sent to a finishing school in Paris and later to London) would want.  In the closing scene, we see Pip in a horse-drawn carriage on his way to the big city.

In episode 2, we find Pip under the guardianship of Jaggers as he learns the ways of a gentleman from his affable roommate, Herbert Pocket, who interestingly is played by Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones, The Iron Lady), the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens.  He is reunited with Estella for whom he declares his love, but she isn’t of the same mind.  Pip may have turned into a “gentleman” but in his desire to leave his past behind him, he has also become a bit of a jerk.  But by episode 3, we start to feel compassion for Pip as the ghosts from his past come back to haunt him and he finds the strength to exorcise them and become the man he was meant to be.

I watched this version of Great Expectations twice and enjoyed its twists and turns even more during the second viewing.  It’s a solid choice for undiscerning fans of Dickens, Victorian England, and historical period dramas and while it may not be the crown jewel in Masterpiece Classic’s treasure chest, its sparkle still merits appreciation.

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