A lush and enjoyable adaptation of Dickens' classic, but it could have been great
Over the Christmas holidays, the BBC got a headstart in the upcoming Charles Dickens' bicentenary adaptations race with Armagh-born director Brian Kirk's Great Expectations.
Written by Sarah Phelps (Westway, Eastenders), the three-part mini-series was atmospheric: with lingering shots of endless, grey-green grasses, lots of dirt and scabs on the characters, and a smothering grease of unease and danger coating every shot.
The star studded cast – X-Files Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, Ray Winstone as Magwitch, Douglas Booth as Pip, and a saturnine David Suchet as the secretive Mr Jaggers – moved through a lushly realised Victorian London.
Everything was faintly grey, as if Miss Havisham's cobwebs had escaped the confines of Satis House. Anderson was wonderfully addled as the broken Havisham, barely recognizable under the ragged froth of unravelling talcum-powder and bone-white make up. One of the youngest Miss Havisham's to date, there was a poignancy to Anderson's incarnation of the famous jilted bride.
When she first met young Pip there were shadows of beauty and sanity about her. Later meetings chronicled Havisham's degeneration from a mad but charismatic villain to a shuffling, ranting wreck of a person.
No matter how beautifully shot and well acted this adaptation was, however, it failed to the capture the social complexity, and ambiguity, of Dickens' late life morality tale. It was toothless in all the wrong ways.
The original story seemed to have been sanitised for our consumption, its grit and gristle excised to leave a palatable, but forgettable, narrative. Apparently, the BBC did not feel their viewers capable of digesting shades of grey along with their turkey leftovers.
So characters of low moral standing were made, instead, irredeemably, unmistakably evil. Paul Rhys' Compeyson, for example, was not just a conman and criminal, but an aspiring rapist to boot. But he should count himself lucky.
For in this adaptation, the bullish and always charmless Bentley Drummle (a stiff-necked Tom Burke), apparently regularly scheduled a pre-breakfast horse-beating.
His cruelty is alluded to in the source material, but the horse here was not even saddled or bridled. Drummle did not seem to be going riding, he merely found whipping a horse on the lawn conducive to his digestion. It was cruelty, but of an almost pantomime level.
Equally, characters with whom the audience is to sympathise had their sins washed clean by revision. So Molly the tigress, who was driven by jealousy to throttle a woman and threaten to murder her own infant, was a woman falsely accused after defending herself against the rapacious Compeyson. Equally, Magwitch was absolved of his long criminal collusion with his old partner.
Such revisions were particularly aggravating, since Dickens' intent with these characters was to show how the crippling poverty of the Victorian underclasses could and did corrupt even a good soul. Magwitch was a villain and a thug because his life offered no opportunity to be anything other. That is why Pip's small kindness with the pie meant so much to him. It gave him a reason to be better, and thus he was.
Understandably perhaps, Booth's supermodel pout and acne commercial after-photo skin made him the only person more beautiful than Estella – the girl who is supposed to break his heart. In the book, Estella might have been Miss Havisham's victim, but she was not a victim. In this adaptation she is.
Rather than choosing Drummle out of a detached kindness, she is bullied into it by Miss Havisham and her chaperone. 'Compel yourself,' the chaperone told her, when Estella tried to call off the wedding at the last minute. And she did, panting into her veil like the horse her husband beats before porridge.
And, of course, in the end she runs – well, walks, in evocative slow motion – to not quite kiss Pip. Who loved her, or at least always imagined that he possessed her and now he was proven right.
In an alternative universe, where Dickens never picked up a pen and Phelps authored this story, this Great Expectations might have been a compelling nice love story for Christmas. The core elements of a great story were all there: tragedy, redemption, good friends and bad enemies. Unfortunately, the original novel is in circulation and this adaptation, though enjoyable, ultimately fell short.