Great Expectations (2011)


Some books are just purely cinematic. Great Expectations is one of them, with all the elements of a perfect gothic story: the mad woman, the creepy old house full of cobwebs and bitter memories, the stretch of the forge and the sinister man who arises from the mud to slam the young hero to the ground and threaten his life. This recent adaptation by the BBC is a visual masterpiece, full of understated and wonderful performances, as atmospheric a tale as Charles Dickens could have imagined.


The solitary Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) has not been seen by any of the locals in many years, not since she was jilted on her wedding day. Now shut up in her great old house, which still bears the ghosts of wounded memories in the form of a moth-eaten wedding gown and rat-infested marriage cake, she decides to enlist the assistance of a forge boy, young Pip (Oscar Kennedy), in entertaining her ward, Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small). Hoping to raise the girl to avenge the sins of her former lover, her innocent appeal causes Pip's family, which includes his unhappy sister, her good-natured husband, and their greedy uncle, to think that perhaps they might rise in society as a result of it. Miss Havisham encourages Pip to be ambitious and hints that he may have great expectations for the future, only to turn around and deprive him of the one thing he wants most, condemning him to the life of a bond servant learning the trade as a blacksmith.


But that is not the end of Pip's journey, nor his relationship with Miss Havisham... for seven years later, Pip (Douglas Booth) is informed by a London solicitor (David Suchet) that he has inherited a great sum of money. It requires abandoning his current life and becoming a gentleman in society... a plan that will reintroduce him to Estella (Vanessa Kirby) once more.


For the first time, I've enjoyed an adaptation of this novel. It is different from the source material in some respects (and that certainly will give book enthusiasts reason to complain) but it avoids the over theatricality of the roles and instead chooses a far more natural approach, one entirely believable on a level that former installments have not quite achieved. I remember being very much put off by former depictions of Miss Havisham, which leaned a little too much toward romantic interest in Pip for my liking; Gillian chooses to play her in a far different way, approaching it both as a woman fully aware of what she is doing and as such, dedicated to evil (though she may not truly know it) and as a vulnerable child in a mature body, forever stuck in one place with no hope of moving forward. The acting here is really remarkable from everyone involved, but particularly so from the young lead. His Pip is all at once a lovely child and one we feel deeply for, yet we are similarly fascinated with Estella and her grim companion.


While certain elements are dramatically different from the book (in order to create a more modern ending) and the second episode stumbles a bit in maintaining the pace of its other parts, this is an enjoyable adaptation that avoids some of the sins of its predecessors while also offering romantics an ending that will make them happy. It is not perfect but it is quite good, and well worth the three hours required to discover its mysteries.


Sexual Content:

Pip is teased about being a virgin and offered a prostitute (he declines); a man promises another man he'll have a different whore every night. There is an implication that a woman is a man's mistress.



A few mild profanities.



A man manhandles a boy and threatens him with murder, then attempts to strangle a man and drown him before he is knocked over the head with a rifle butt; a man finds a woman lying on the floor in a pool of blood and she never recovers from her injuries (she becomes bedridden and cannot speak); one man is stabbed and blood comes out of his mouth; another is found dead after a horse has killed him (off-screen); a man is hit numerous times with rifle butts and dies from his injuries; bruises on a woman's skin implies her husband beats her; a character goes up in flames and burns to death.




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