Everyone I know who likes British costume dramas seemed either beyond excited for this production or had seen it and thought it was as beautiful as it was haunting. Because such accolades came from people whose opinions I may not always agree with but do trust I was really excited to get my hands on this. I had seen two versions prior to this and although I much preferred the newer Masterpiece adaptation of the two, neither one gripped me in the way that so many Dickens productions have. That is primarily the reason I was so anxious to get my hands on this version.
Young Pip only has one protector. Orphaned, the boy lives with his stern sister but her kind-hearted blacksmith husband, Joe (Shaun Dooley) has always been Pip’s hero. Following an odd encounter with an escaped convict named Magwitch (Ray Winstone) on a cold Christmas day, Pip’s whole world is about to change. Everything he thought he wanted is now nothing but a past. The recluse and mysterious Miss Havisham wishes for a young boy to come once a week as a kind of playmate to her young impetuous adopted daughter. The locals are still intrigued by the wealthy matron whose past has caused her to lock herself away in a dilapidated old estate. Choosing to go, Pip is swept into the strange woman’s world. Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) is a woman still used to getting what she wants – her home is shrouded in more than dust and shadows as she walks around bare-footed in a ratty old wedding gown. It is young Estella that Pip quickly loses his young heart to. The teenage beauty is nearly as cold as her mother but the naïve Pip is drawn into their world to the point of wanting to live it. Assuming Miss Havisham wants to settle money on Pip, his sister couldn’t be more thrilled but much to Pip’s disappoint after weeks that turned into months of weekly visits, instead the woman pays for his apprenticeship to train in the trade of balcksmith effectively putting an end to his visits with Estella.
Years pass and Pip (Douglas Booth) grows into a fine-looking man with little potential to become a gentleman. Out of nowhere, a well-known London attorney named Jaggers (David Suchet) informs Pip that a mysterious benefactor has settled a large fortune on him. There are stipulations: Including never inquiring who his benefactor is until he reaches his majority but Pip immediately assumes it is Miss Havisham. Being a man now with prospects, Pip leaves for London but is still ensnared in her web – he is pulled back to the house and into the dark secrets surrounding it when Estella (Vanessa Kirby) returns from finishing school in Paris needing an escort… leading Pip to again pine for Estella.
It is hard to know where to begin in a production such as this. The opening frame – and beyond of this mini-series is pure brilliance. It puts every single one of our senses alert. The filming and set creates a dangerous, mysterious scene only intensified set on the dark, dank marsh land with characters whose purpose and intent we do not yet understand. Naturally if one is privy to the book, everyone is not just familiar with the players but who they will become – for me that did not lessen the intrigue even being familiar with the story via film adaptations. The direction and acting were still beyond compare. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, much of this will seem a tad… um… perhaps, crazy but the strange thing about Dickens is that his novels are so complex and mysterious but each always have points, meanings to every motivation. He was truly a brilliant author.
Having seen two prior versions to this one, this is – by far, the best of the lot. Although I’ve not read the novel (am I the only one who finds the language… difficult?), a 3-hour miniseries is probably cutting a lot of corners but it felt “complete” and authentic to its purpose. Pacing comes across as a bit “off” or rushed a time or two but then cramming a lengthy, droning novel into a time slot cannot be an easy feat. For that, scripter’s deserve slack. One thing production did not skimp on was casting. The acting is brilliant in this movie – particularly from Gillian Anderson. She owns the role of Miss Havisham. The character is a ghostly shell of a woman whose disappointment has been allowed to rule her life – it has manifested into misery at the least and suicidal tendencies at the worse. Her fragile passive-aggressive attitude is a prison of her own making, instead of moving on and “being happy” as Pip once tells her she could have been. Her portrayal of the woman is not likely to be beat in the near future – not even the talented Helena Bonham-Carter will be likely surpass her interpretation. Sometimes, when there is one domineering performance, everyone else pales in comparison, that is fortunately not the case here. Everyone holds their own including newcomers Booth and Kirby. He is naïve and conceited to be a strong version of Pip while Kirby is appropriately alluring and cold in a two-dimensional act. Each of the performances is unforgettable in their own right.
It is hard to “like” any Dickens-esque story because of its themes, and this is not different. It shows how deeply flawed human nature can be – at its worst. It reflects on the sorrows, regrets and tragedies that make life… life. It re-counts the choices that lead to despair and ruin, and leads us to believe that no one is going to be happy because of the choices they have made. Despite having something to live for, Miss Havisham turns her back not just on life but a young girl who could have used love and the affection of a mother instead of the training to become a woman who would grow up to hate men, and consequently be nearly as miserable as the woman who raised her. Despite this being my favorite adaptation of this story, it’s not my favorite Dickens film. Anyone who has experienced his works knows each are merely quirky at best but innately depressing and sometimes pure evil lives within the story. Dickens seems in a class that was all his own. Paid by the word, the author wrote characters that strangely nearly always resembled their surnames and were always “weird” but curiously loveable – even if his villains were strictly nasty. This production does not have the same “bite” as prior movies. There aren’t the usual troubling shivers Dickens can sometimes cause and fortunately, for the audience, despite its ending still being ambiguous, and slightly seeming to have been cut short, it will make romantics sigh with pleasure. Not to mention, the costuming is gorgeous and even in some instances, breathtaking. That alone gives this film "five stars."
Whatever you think of him or his style, know this: Great Expectations, whether changed from the novel or not is distinctively Dickens. Make no mistake.
(What to know: The film would probably deserve a “soft” PG13-raing. Men are depicted as having been beaten with blood everywhere [twice], two others are strangled [one does die], and another is stabbed. One scene takes place at a “club” in which men can pick out a “lady of the evening” for a price [nothing graphic]; Pip is mocked for being a virgin. There are some tense moments and a woman is nearly murdered [off-screen]. Implications inform that a woman is beaten in her marriage as there are bruises as evidence and another woman commits suicide by lighting herself on fire.)