Brian Kirk's Great Expectations

The Armagh-born director on the enduring appeal of Charles Dickens' classic story

With the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth on the horizon, the art world is sure to pay its respects. Beginning the celebration on December 27, the BBC is showing a new three part series of Great Expectations, perhaps the most celebrated book by the Victorian novelist.

Great Expectations is a tale of class, ambition and cold hearted revenge, and this newest screen adaptation is the work of Armagh-born director, Brian Kirk. His cast includes Gillian Anderson as the tormented and jilted Miss Havisham, Ray Winstone as Abel Magwitch, and Worried About the Boy's Douglas Booth as older Pip.

Kirk explains it was the dark, intense, mythical quality of Dickens' story that enticed him onboard as director. The continuing relevance of the societal issues that concerned Dickens in the late 1860s give the story an enduring appeal.

'Great Expectations really speaks about themes of identity,' says Kirk. 'Who you are, the things you will do for love, in both the positive and negative sense. I think it is particularly relevant in terms of the backward social mobility that is happening in our society.

'We are not really progressing as a society. If you want to talk about things like social justice and opportunities for kids, we are definitely going backwards. The gap between rich and poor is widening at a frightening rate. Certainly none of that social relevance is lost within the story.'

Kirk believes that all good film-makers and writers are drawn to storytelling as a means of making sense of the world around them. He first read Great Expectations as a schoolboy, but his recent reconnection with it made him ponder the relationship he had with his own father.

'Shaun Dooley, in this adaptation, plays Joe as a man of strength and dignity despite Pip's immature mistreatment of him. This shows the typical teenage failure to appreciate the selfless love of a parent and the persistence of that love despite the lack of appreciation.

'It made me think that Joe had never properly been represented before, and I thought of my own father, who has since passed away, and my relationship with him, and the support he gave me in my life.

'I was desperately condescending to my parents when I left home and went to London when I wasn’t much older than a teenager myself. I treated them very badly and then subsequently came to discover the power of their forgiveness. I also discovered things they had given me that I wasn’t even aware of.

'In a way that’s why Dickens is still relevant to me. His work speaks to you, and that created a space for me where I felt I could create an original adaptation of this classic text.'

Brian Kirk

Kirk is currently in the process of negotiating to take the helm on two major Hollywood films, the Guillermo del Toro produced Midnight Delivery, and Paper Wings, which will see Tom Cruise in the lead role.

Since the release of his acclaimed debut feature film, Middletown (2006), Kirk has been kept extremely busy. He has directed episodes of huge US network hits like Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Luther, Game of Thrones, and Luck.

The journey from indie director to Hollywood honcho has been an interesting one. In conversation, Kirk name-drops people like Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman and Michael Mann. Working with them on productions, he says, has given him an appetite for large scale storytelling.

'The larger the budget, the bigger the onus to draw audiences into the story,' Kirk adds, 'and if you don’t bring in that audience, you won’t be given the budget again. A good thing to remember is that the audience is a key part to the story. That was one of the things I felt I learned enormously when I made Middletown.

'Although I invested a huge amount of effort and worked with an amazing group of people on that movie, I think I felt at the end of it that I didn’t want to make films in the future that were as niche as that. So that sense of responsibility to the audience is a useful thing to understand, at whatever budget level you are at.'

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and early 80s, Kirk admits that it 'wasn’t exactly a cultural hotbed for film directors'. And yet a shared passion for film saw Kirk and several others in his peer group eventually succeed as professionals.

'There was a wave of people in Armagh at the time who were interested in film-making, most notably [acclaimed cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey, and other talented people like Enda and Michael Hughes,' says Kirk. 'My own brother is also very heavily involved in the film industry, so there was certainly something in the air that made us all connect and want to reach out to that form of storytelling.'

The first short film that Kirk made was Baby Doll in 1998, but it was in 2004 that he got his first real break, successfully directing a BBC Northern Ireland comedy called Pulling Moves. It was a steep learning curve for the young director.

As a director, Kirk says, what separates mediocrity from excellence is the ability to make decisions in a split second. 'I think the hardest part of the job is just being clear about what you are trying to do. You have to ask yourself: what I am trying to say here? How is what I am doing right now advancing that story?

'There is a great line from Stanislavsky that says: the purpose of technique is to free the unconsciousness. I guess that’s probably the hardest thing to do.'

Great Expectations begins at 9pm, BBC One on Tuesday, December 27.