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Masterpiece Classic: Great Expectations

(US DVD: 3 Apr 2012)

The gothic classic, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, is the latest to get the Masterpiece Classic treatment.  It’s a three hour adaptation that takes some liberties with the original story, but it does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere and overall feeling of the book. 


Great Expectations begins with the story of young Pip, a boy living with his older sister (Claire Rushbrook) and brother-in-law, a blacksmith named Joe (Shaun Dooley), who serves more as a father and protector than a brother. The striking first scenes involves Pip’s encounter with an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Ray Winstone), hiding in the marshes near his home. Their meeting is both scary and arresting in its stark beauty.  Though Pip helps Abel under duress, he still exhibits a kindness towards him that creates an impression not only on the convict, but on the viewer, as well. In contrasting his innocence and compassion with Abel’s brusque, threatening nature, Pip quickly becomes the hero of the story.


Soon after, he’s presented with an opportunity to serve as a playmate for Estella, the adopted daughter of the mysterious and wealthy Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), and his family jumps at the chance to bring fortune into their lives. While Pip is initially reluctant to go, he quickly becomes enraptured with Estella, Miss Havisham, and their grand estate. His eyes are opened to the larger world and so begins Pip’s journey into a life he struggles to fully understand.


When an older Pip comes into a sudden inheritance in order to “become a gentleman” in London, he’s convinced that the gift is from Miss Havisham. As the story unfolds in true Dickensian fashion, things are not always as they appear to be, and Pip must undergo his own trials in navigating the new societal rules and the responsibility of more money than he’s ever had. Pip’s time in London is marked by his friendship with Herbert Pocket (Harry Lloyd), as Herbert serves as a tutor in the ways of high society. His newfound freedom leads to excesses and a distance, both physical and emotional, from his family. 


Meanwhile, Pip is reunited with a grown up Estella (Vanessa Kirby) and is convinced that fate – and Miss Havisham – have given him an opportunity to better himself for her. However, Estella’s life with Miss Havisham was one ongoing lesson on the perils of love.  Her cruelty disguised as motherly affection has shaped Estella and it is Pip’s inability to completely understand their relationship that drives much of the second half of the adaptation. 


One of this current adaptation’s greatest strengths is its production. From the stunning opening credits, to the impeccable set design, to the almost muted color palette, they all combine to create a thoroughly striking impression that feels both Dickensian and modern. It also does a wonderful job of showing the deterioration and decay of both Miss Havisham and her home throughout the years. Upon her first appearance, Miss Havisham seems almost otherworldly, albeit still strange, as she continues to wear the dress from her failed wedding, but it’s easy to understand how Pip could so easily fall under her spell. However, as the years pass, her dress yellows and her house falls more and more into disrepair, it becomes clear just how divorced from reality she really is. There’s no mistaking that something is wrong with Miss Havisham, yet Pip continues in his devotion to her, and sees her as a savior-like figure for much of the story. 


Casting was another key element to the success of this adaptation. Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham is all vacant stares and soft whispers. In her frail state she actually comes off more menacing than she would if she were to play her with overt aggression. Instead, Miss Havisham is selfish and manipulative, but above all she is broken. Anderson is excellent in conveying both sides of a character so iconic in literature while making the character her own. 


The rest of the cast is also very good, particularly Ray Winstone as Abel Magwitch, who is equal parts intimidating and vulnerable and Harry Lloyd as Pip’s friend, Herbert Pocket. They are both terrific counterparts to Pip’s innocence. Both of the actors that play Pip are also a highlight. Young Pip, played by Oscar Kennedy, is a natural and his scenes with Anderson and Shaun Dooley are great.  Douglas Booth ably plays the older version of Pip as he struggles with the means to become a new person, without losing himself in the process.


Masterpiece Classic’s Great Expectations is the kind of adaptation that takes the original material and transforms it into something so beautifully visual that the characters, places, and time all feel immediate and significant. Oftentimes, the most faithful and complete approach tends to lose the full impact of a story, but in this version of Great Expectations any liberties taken have created an adaptation that feels just as true to the original, while still offering a successful contemporary sensibility.


The DVD release contains no bonus material.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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25 Oct 2011
Masterpiece Classic has successfully taken material that is well known and well loved and done it justice.
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