by Charles Dickens, adapted by Sarah Phelps
First broadcast: 27-29 December 2011
Great Expectations has been adapted before. A lot.
The famous, critically-acclaimed and culturally important novel has seen numerous TV, film and radio adaptations, and this 2011 BBC effort is just the latest in a long line. (Not even that, as a year later Helena Bonham-Carter donned the Havisham dress!) If you had asked me before watching this adaptation, is there any point in adapting an old story unless you’re bringing something new to it? I would have said, no. But that’s what this version is. Dickens’ tale, retold, mainly faithful, certainly in spirit. His great grandson is even in the cast! Is anything new here? And if not, is that a bad thing?
Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham is probably the selling point here, the “new” thing. New because she’s a young (for Miss Havisham) and beautiful woman. Much was made of her casting in the run up to its broadcast, and although her age might not please purists, it is a refreshing change. It skews the character slightly. Instead of a woman whose beauty has faded along with her youth and hopes, Anderson’s Havisham is a woman whose beauty is fading. That way, you get something that other adaptations with older leads can’t do: progression. Anderson is steadily aged up, with drier, more cracked skin, messier hair and dirtier skin as the episodes develop and the story moves on. That’s both realistic – because of course the narrative spans a huge swathe of Pip’s life, it’s logical that she ages too – and more unsettling. It works really well. So that’s new about this version.
Anderson herself is a fantastic actress. After this and The Fall I’m overjoyed that British television seems to have kidnapped her from across the pond. Her accent is flawless, her expression incredible. She has the right level of dreamy and intent, which is a tricky balance to strike. One completely sympathises with her and is scared by her. She feels both disconnected from life and marred by it. Exactly what Dickens wrote.
So, anything else that’s new? Little, is the honest answer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not much to enjoy. All of the iconic scenes are delivered faithfully, but without that overhanging lethargy and knowingness that sometimes comes with scenes that culture has already embraced a thousand times. Miss Havisham in the fire is surely one of the greatest scenes of anything, ever. Satis House looks like the Satis House you see when you read it, as does Jo’s forge, as does Mr Pumplechook! The art direction, set, period detail, cinematography is flawless, and helps the story balance that wonderful inherent contradiction from the marshes to the city. And the butterfly-to-caterpillar theme is teased out clearly but gracefully, and highlights the fact that – whilst not as subtle as the dense novel – this is a surprisingly sophisticated retelling, given it was made for Christmas, for a populist audience.
That throws up a criticism of the piece actually, but one that is a problem with the medium of television as opposed to this adaptation uniquely. As any good lit lover knows, the big twist in Great Expectations is [spoilers!] that Pip’s benefactor is not Miss Havisham, a woman of social (if not personal) respectability, but Magwitch, a common criminal! This twist is so fantastic for numerous reasons. Because it deconstructs Pip as a poor-rich hybrid, and because it highlights his (latterly-hidden) humility. But mainly, two points: it works thoroughly well because no one ever tells us it’s Havisham – we and Pip simply assume, and are given reasonable circumstantial evidence to guide us to that assumption. Enough to make us skirt over the fact that she has out-and-out denied him social uplifting in the past. That comes off as well in the television version as it does in Dickens’ novel.
And secondly, it works well because Magwitch seems irrelevant! Dickens’ novels in particular are so saturated in rich detail that we don’t give the Magwitch encounter from way back at the start of the narrative much more attention than we do the colour of Bentley Drummle’s shirt. It is not unreasonable for us to assume that it was simply etching in of detail as to the person Pip is, indeed justified within the work later because it stands him in contrast to the person he becomes. It’s a detailed biographical narrative and that is a small detail in the biography. This doesn’t come off as well on television.
Of course a huge swathe of the audience would have already read the book, for whom the twist is already ‘spoiled’. But the trouble with television is you have to cast a Name, here a fantastic Ray Winstone, and then apparently dispatch him within twenty minutes of episode one… The television-savvy audience member knows he’ll be back for more, or else they would have done that British thing of saving a bit of money and casting a Nobody. And the other reason it is more obvious on TV is: in three hours of television you just don’t have time for the less relevant details. (It’s another point in the favour of the long-running soap opera style of the BBC’s Bleak House that I’m watching at the moment. That is certainly an effective way of doing Dickens on TV.) The saturation of Dickens’ prose can’t be fully conveyed, everything there must contribute to later, and the second you think Magwitch contributes more to the plot, the second his position as benefactor clicks into place. It’s not blindingly obvious – we don’t know he has money until later – but it’s more so than in the novel, thanks to the medium.
Is that a problem? No! Because the point is that everyone in the production is working so hard that you barely register – and that second cliff-hanger is so well-crafted it still packs a punch. That’s one of the greatest things about this version: the way in which it fully embraces Dickens’ three-part structure, because British television is so suited to that shape. Kudos Sarah Phelps.
I started this review by pointing out how, frankly, unoriginal this show was. But don’t ever mistake that for ‘not much to love’. In fact this is one of those instances where the review is at risk of simply becoming a long list of people to praise. So let’s end with such a list, namely the amazing cast list: the beautiful and talented (how dare he be both!!!) Douglas Booth, Frances Barber, David Suchet, Tom Burke (always a favourite of mine), Claire Rushbrook and almost stealing the show: Shaun Dooley. Special mention to Oscar Kennedy, the best child actor I have ever seen. When you expect to be crying out for Pip to grow into a Proper Actor, instead you end up being genuinely gutted when Kennedy walks off-screen for the last time. He’s one to watch.
They all were, fantastic to watch. Because ultimately what Dickens is remembered for is his vast array of well-sketched characters. As well-sketched as ever they were, here.