‘Great Expectations’ on PBS: Deliciously bitter

Hank Stuever
TV critic March 30, 2012

‘Great Expectations,” the quiet favorite of many a Charles Dickens fan, gets a fairly faithful and at times absorbingly bleak two-part “Masterpiece” treatment on PBS starting Sunday. Everything there is to love about the sprawling 1861 novel is intact — the dark themes of loss, abandonment, ma­nipu­la­tion, bitterness and, of course, the subject Dickens considered most foreboding: debt.

Financial debt, obviously, since it was a primary shame in his Victorian world, but also emotional debt. “Great Expectations” is drenched in a sorrowful litany of who owes what to whom. Watching it this time reminded me of an old adage that Carrie Fisher repurposed in her recent autobiographical stage show: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.”

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Weird, old Miss Havisham is one of Western literature’s most memorable resentment junkies. Jilted as a young bride, squirreling herself away in her crumbling estate, she methodically and abusively manipulates the lives of others — and serves as a template for every crazy cat lady and Grey-Gardner and many “Hoarders” who would follow in popular lore. She’s not just a terrible slob; she gets off on other people’s disappointments and heartbreaks.

“Great Expectations” has been adapted to the screen many times over, including the tiny indignity of a modern 1990s update that starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. This 2011 British-made version, adapted by Sarah Phelps, does what any attempt must, winnowing Dickens’s 600-page novel and sharpening its themes into a movie with momentum. It still clocks in at three hours, which seems about right. The first part on Sunday lasts an hour and is essentially prologue; the second part, airing April 8, is two hours long and richer for it.

For people who never read the book (or, like me, were the type who spent most of high school drawing Van Halen logos and Jedi knights in book margins), “Great Expectations” follows the journey of a young orphan, Pip (played in boyhood by Oscar Kennedy), who lives in the country with his older sister and her blacksmith husband (Shaun Dooley). Pip has a frightening encounter with an escaped convict, Magwitch (Ray Winstone), that neither will ever forget.

In one of those odd Dickensian developments, the mysterious spinster Miss Havisham summons Pip to her estate, ostensibly as a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella — to the delight of Pip’s family. In her decrepit house, Miss Havisham keeps a smothering watch over Estella. Pip discovers a lot of dust and psychological unhappiness.

Miss Havisham is played by Gillian Anderson, the former Agent Scully from “The X-Files.” Anderson is often fantastic in classically literary fare— she won a Golden Globe in 2007 for “Bleak House,” and I still have her performance as Lily Bart in a 2000 adaptation of “The House of Mirth” moping around in my memory.

Here, Anderson’s falsetto-voiced Miss Havisham is just a touch over-the-top and takes some getting used to. Whatever she’s going for, it’s less evocative of the complicated bitterness that embodies the character and more like a specter in a “Scooby-Doo” mystery.

And she would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. Pip and Estella begin a decade of on-again, off-again attraction and missed opportunities. In yet another arrangement that can be described only as Dickensian, Miss Havisham pays to have Pip sent back to his sister’s house, signing the boy over into a blacksmith apprenticeship with his brother-in-law.

The story jumps ahead several years as an older Pip (Douglas Booth) has grown into a soulful-eyed teen with a Justin Bieber haircut. His family is informed by Miss Havisham’s attorney, Mr. Jaggers (David Suchet), that a mysterious benefactor wants to send Pip to London to become a gentleman — a young man in which one could place “great expectations.” The benefactor is willing to float Pip on a generous weekly allowance until he comes of age, at which point he’ll inherit a small fortune. Pip assumes Miss Havisham is pulling these strings — and she lets him believe it.

In London, “Great Expectations” settles in for its ruminative course on class issues, profligacy, loyalty and deceit. Once again Pip is called upon to be a companion for Estella (Vanessa Kirby), and falls in love with her, only to learn he can never have her. Something about Phelps’s adaptation fails to lift this cycle of regret, bitterness and loss into the more sublime realm. More concerned with plot than subtext, “Great Expectations” is lovely to look at but, at times, difficult to feel.

As the story keeps unspooling, “Great Expectations” becomes a worthy and sumptuous treat for “Masterpiece” fans. Like most of Dickens’s novels, there are about three or four spots in the last third where the story could call it a day. But it keeps going, toward an ultimately satisfying landing.

Masterpiece Classic:
Great Expectations

(one hour) begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. The two-hour conclusion airs April 8.

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