Great Expectations TV Review

Great Expectations TV Review

Steven Knight’s gritty, adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is bleak but showcases a stunning performance by Olivia Colman.

Plot: Great Expectations is the coming-of-age story of “Pip,” an orphan who yearns for a greater lot in life, until a twist of fate and the evil machinations of the mysterious and eccentric “Miss Havisham” shows him a dark world of possibilities. Under the great expectations placed upon him, Pip will have to work out the true cost of this new world and whether it will truly make him the man he wishes to be. A damning critique of the class system, Dickens’ novel was published in 1861 after first releasing it in a series of weekly chapters beginning in December 1860.

Review: Adaptations of Charles Dickens are aplenty on the small screen and as feature films. Great Expectations has been adapted multiple times, notably in 1998 by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft, and Robert De Niro. In 2012, Harry Potter director Mike Newell took a shot at a film version starring Jeremy Irvine, Helene Bonham Carter, Holliday Grangier, and Ralph Fiennes. There was also a notable 2011 BBC series with Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby to precede the newest adaptation of the serial novel. The biggest difference between the new Great Expectations and the three aforementioned takes is that Steven Knight’s view of Dickensian England is stark, brutal, and profane, which flies in the face of the subtlety, satire, and humor that made the book such a masterpiece. While this new limited series is not awful, it is far from a faithful envisioning of the source material.

Much like Knight’s 2019 reimagining of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this version of Great Expectations shares a lot more in common with his period dramas Peaky Blinders and Taboo. Like Taboo, Great Expectations comes from producers Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott and takes a grim and gritty view of 19th-century life in England. Every scene of this series is mired in overcast skies, muddy ground, and bleak outlooks for anyone not of high standing. Into that life comes Pip (Fionn Whitehead), a poor orphan living with his sister and apprenticing to her husband as a blacksmith. When the opportunity arises for Pip to be schooled by the reclusive Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) as a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin), he discovers what life is like for those who live with means. It also allows us to see the dichotomy of the working class instead of the wealthy. But, something is missing in the translation from Dickens’ novel: the humor.

Here is an example. In the novel, Mr. Pumblechuck is a comedic presence who introduces Pip to Miss Havisham. In this series, he is perfectly portrayed by Matt Berry, best known for his role in What We Do In The Shadows. But, Pumblechuck’s humor is muted when we see a scene of Pip’s sister Sara (Hayley Squires) engaging with him in some sadomasochistic whipping. The sexualization of the character ruins what could have otherwise been a moment of levity in this series. In fact, Knight’s adaptation dials up the violence, sex, and profanity significantly. Dickens did not avoid including mature themes in his stories, but he kept them told in a way that created layers of meaning and understanding. This new adaptation hits you over the head without leaving room for subtext. Great Expectations is a sprawling story and one that is full of darkness, but much of that was offset with lighter moments, all of which are missing in this new interpretation.

What Knight has managed to improve in his take on the novel are almost all of the female characters. Charles Dickens has created some memorable women in his writings, but so many exist to propel their male counterparts’ tales. Here, Estella is no longer a pawn in the larger game played by Miss Havisham, which alters the perspective of her fate. Likewise, Olivia Colman is captivating as Miss Havisham in a performance, unlike any other take on the iconic role. Colman pays Miss Havisham less as a lunatic and more as a broken woman suffering like a drug addict after heartbreak. Her pale visage chills in the trailers and even more so when she takes extended screen time during the series. This Great Expectations also takes a color-blind approach to casting, giving the series a more layered feel, allowing Ashley Thomas’ portrayal of the villainous lawyer Jaggers to be one of the best takes on the character in any version of this story.

With the first four episodes helmed by Brady Hood and the final two by Samira Radsi, Great Expectations is hauntingly shot with stark attention to the sanitary conditions of the period. Victorian dramas often romanticize how things looked, but few sequences in this series are not smudged or caked with dust. The lighting and framing of shots throughout this series take on a gothic quality, giving Knight’s A Christmas Carol a similar horror movie feel. Surprisingly, Great Expectations has more jump scares than I would have anticipated in a Dickens adaptation, but it should be no surprise to fans of Peaky Blinders or Taboo. But, while the visual tone of Great Expectations is dour, the series’ mood wallows in so much depressing hopelessness that it is almost jarring when the series tries to conclude on a positive note. There is so much potential in this series to have delivered the messages in Dickens’ take on the story, but without it this ends up feeling as far from the source material as possible without changing the title.

Great Expectations, Olivia Colman, Steven Knight

This series retains Charles Dickens’ preferred episodic format and even achieves some solid cliffhanger moments at the end of each chapter. However, there is still something lacking. Despite a stunning performance from Olivia Colman and a serviceable portrayal of Pip from Fionn Whitehead, it is hard to find much to enjoy in this take on one of the masterpieces of English literature. As an experiment in playing with the story, Steven Knight’s Great Expectations is a well-crafted and distinct take on a rags-to-riches story and the consequences of changing your station in life. With impeccable production values and amazing costumes, this version of the classic novel has tried to update itself for 21st-century viewers. It may have sacrificed some of what made the original such a vital book for over a hundred years.

Great Expectations premieres March 26th on FX on Hulu.


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