Since I have a weakness for period pieces and Gillian Anderson, I thought I might as well watch the BBC’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as not. I don’t know if it exceeded my expectations (sorry, I had to do it), but this was only part one of two, after all.
The basic plot is boy, Pip, meets girl, Estella, in the creepy house, Satis, owned by a creepy woman, Miss Havisham (never madam). Since Miss Havisham is so twisted and disturbed from having been jilted all those years ago, she sets about messing with their lives since that’s just what jilted ladies do. Since this is British, class issues are central to the story: Pip is from the lower classes who wants to be “brought up” to the level of a gentleman. Really, what’s a British period piece without many uncomfortable discussions of class?
This first episode followed our boy Pip (Oscar Kennedy) as he unwittingly saves Magwitch, a convict (Ray Winstone), with a file and mutton pie, meets his cruel lady-love Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small) and the crueler and crazier benefactress Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson). The lady of Satis strings him along, letting him think that he’ll be raised above his station, only to apprentice him to his kind brother-in-law at the forge. What a letdown for our young hero. But he seems to accept his place in the world, until one day, many years later (we know it’s many years since the child actor is now replaced by Douglas Booth of the Corset Crew) he once again comes into contact with Miss Havisham. She invites him to call so that she can parade a grown-up Estella in front of him, informing him that she is going to France for “polish” and will no doubt follow up by making a splendid match in London.
But she’s not the only one moving up in the world – the attorney Jaggers (David Suchet) arrives at the forge to inform Pip that he has an anonymous benefactor who wishes to raise him up to the position of a gentleman, styled as Mr. Pip. He is not to inquire into who this benefactor is, which is fine by him since he is convinced it’s Miss Havisham, who is giving her blessing for him and Estella to marry. And off he goes to London, as a man of great expectations, to start his new life – to be continued.
The boy Pip was so adorable – not really the best actor, but since he was so cute it doesn’t matter. Douglas Booth is an up and coming actor, but so far the biggest impression he left on me is that he looks kind of like Theo James who played Pamuk in Downton Abbey. Estella made even less of an impression, except for her nice fingerless gloves she wore as a child. The adult Estella, Vanessa Kirby, is another Corset Crew member who was rumoured to be dating Douglas Booth. What drama!
Gillian Anderson gave off a decided Baby Jane whiff, which I guess worked. I didn’t get the impression she was that bonkers or evil, so maybe that’s why critics had problems with her. I know that there are limitations of condensing a large-ish book into a short miniseries, but it would have been nice to explore the sick and twisted relationship between her and her adopted daughter, and this could have helped to display her cruelty better. And let me just say that I don’t think she’s the benefactor – call me crazy. The escaped convict didn’t just show up for the pie.
Full disclosure, I’m not much of a Charles Dickens fan, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Great Expectations since it was the first grown up book Roald Dahl’s Matilda read. And so far this show isn’t bad at all. I think these BBC/costume dramas are like comfort food – it would take something really awful to make them unwatchable. And thank you Laura Linney for your weird, slightly off-putting introduction. That’s what makes Masterpiece so wonderful.