I must admit, my high school education did not include reading a single Charles Dickens novel. Instead, we studied Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet and probably the most memorable for me, Aldous Huxley’s twistedly engrossing Brave New World.
So other than film adaptations of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, I pretty much have no familiarity with Dickens’ writing, let alone had any idea what Great Expectations was about before watching the 2011 BBC/Masterpiece miniseries.
I just happened to stumble upon it in the lull of the post-Christmas, pre-New Years week and thought, Why not check it out?
Needless to say, the opening scenes of an escaped convict and a young boy in the marshes of England had me lost right off the bat and definitely not what I had in mind when I think of Dickens and Georgian England. (From my limited knowledge and lack of experience with the topics of course).
But you know that feeling at the end of a novel or film when you look back at what you just experienced and think “ZOMG, it all makes sense!!!111!” That’s the feeling I got after the three hours of Great Expectations.
And while, from my understanding, this isn’t going to be a favorite adaptation of the fans of the Dickens classic or even television critics, it did get me interested in an author I had never studied before and has left me thinking about just how skilled a writer he was.
Some of the criticism for this BBC/Masterpiece adaptation, such as its packed, but brisk pacing and simplified, un-Dickensian dialogue were actually positives for me. While I can definitely understand the want to be more than faithful to such an excellent and heralded piece of work, for the uninitiated like me, I felt like this miniseries was a great introduction to not only an intriguing story but a collection of work meant to be experienced by all.
I can only imagine how detailed and much more full Dickens’ original Great Expectations novel must be compared to this miniseries. But I felt like these three hours felt whole and complete with a story that had puzzle pieces that all fit together in the end.
Now, again, this is me being relatively unfamiliar with Dickens or Great Expectations (and a quick hop over to Wikipedia). But I believe the story itself is supposed to be a sort of coming of age story centered on Pip, an orphan with a poor background who gets swept up into the world of the rich by an anonymous benefactor who pays to have him turned into a gentleman.
Both Oscar Kennedy as Young Pip and Douglas Booth as grown Pip do a great job making us both care about him as well as want to slap some sense into him when he lets the promise of a better life make him forget his humble beginnings and those who actually care about him. Both were charming and likeable, thus easily getting you on Pip’s side regardless.
What’s interesting is the miniseries isn’t so much a journey as the passage of time through it is never clear. Instead, it focuses on events that propel the story forward and in turn keeps the miniseries’ brisk pace.
While we follow Pip and laugh and cry and be frustrated with him and while Douglas Booth does a good job leading most of the series, it is Gillian Anderson that ends up being the real star. “Ethereal” is the word I’ve seen most, describing her performance and really, that’s the best word. Her ethereal performance as Miss Havisham is both dreamlike and creepy. She conveys the wistful, airy aura of a heartbroken (and broken) woman, half-insane but still clever and conniving.
And despite the pain she helped bring to young Pip, the final scenes where she asks Pip for forgiveness and then promptly sets herself on fire made you feel sorry for her still. And I believe that’s credit to Gillian Anderson who really brought the character to life. You are freaked the hell the out by her, but pity her and feel sorry for too.
The great pearformances from David Suchet as Jaggers and Shaun Dooley as Pip’s father figure Joe Gargery must also be pointed out and applauded. Paul Ritter, whom I can only see as the father from Friday Night Dinner, was also good as Jaggers’ clerk and Pip’s unlikely ally Wemmick. But it is Ray Winstone as the escaped convict Magwitch who rivals Gillian Anderson for the miniseries’ best performance.
Winstone takes Magwitch from this scary shackled escapee in the beginning of the miniseries to a 2nd father figure and emotional cornerstone for Pip’s enlightenment in the end.
And while Douglas Booth was solid throughout, Vanessa Kirby as Estella was a bit of an enigma to me. I didn’t feel the chemistry and “meant to be” aura between Pip and Estella that maybe I should have felt? Which is why I wasn’t really a fan of that reunion ending, which I was dreading as soon as Pip returned to the marshes. And apparently, Dickens didn’t originally really feel that ending either? I know I would have preferred a non-reunion ending.
But if Estella’s coldness is supposed to make you feel like this, then Vanessa Kirby’s performance is great. Just watching the miniseries, I could care less about what happens to Estella and really a lot more about what would happen to Miss Havisham, as well as everyone else around Pip but Estella. If this were a fairy tale, I might not have that much of a problem with the ending. But for a story like this, I think it’d be much more poignant for Pip’s story on-screen (and in the pages of the novel) to end right where he started; back home, maybe working as a blacksmith or using his newfound knowledge in town.
I found the romantic part of Pip’s story the least interesting and merely something that propels him forward, not the endgame. Which is maybe why or because of Vanessa Kirby’s performance that left me uninterested.
But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by my first real Dickens experience. Great Expectations, the story, is exciting, intriguing and engaging. A massive puzzle that satisfyingly comes together in the end. I feel this miniseries was the same way, especially for a Dickens beginner like me. Maybe it won’t be the definitive adaptation of the novel, but I feel like it’s a great jumping off point for anyone wanting to not only get into Great Expectations, but for those wanting to get into Dickens and his work. It was accessible, but beautifully made, well written and with a strong cast.