‘Great Expectations’ preview

Posted Filed under

To commemorate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth next February, the BBC is currently airing Dickens on the BBC, a season of TV and radio documentary, drama and discussion programmes running.

Yesterday we went along to the British Library for the launch of Great Expectations, screenwriter Sarah Phelps’s (Oliver Twist, EastEnders) three-part take on Dickens’ classic novel about a boy with big dreams who learns that moral worth matters more than social status.

With a Mike Newell film starring Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes also in the pipeline, the BBC clearly has a lot of faith in Great Expectations‘ fitness for the small screen.

In the first part of this new TV adaptation, director Brian Kirk (Dexter, Game of Thrones) isn’t slow to demonstrate that their faith is justified. The opening credits showing a butterfly emerging stickily from a cocoon are mesmerising and set a creepy biological tone to this Victorian gothic melodrama in which a destroyed woman, Miss Havisham (played by a haggardly beautiful Gillian Anderson in a blizzard of face powder) grooms her pretty young protegee Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small) as a weapon against men.

The story arc promises to be the kind of high but smooth one that you’d hope for in a Dickens adaptation. The first episode sets Pip up adroitly for his meteoric rise and inevitable fall in the following episode and his childhood sweetheart/tormentor Estella manages to be both obnoxious and increasingly tragic.

Admittedly Phelps has Dickens, master of the serialised narrative, to thank for getting the balance right between resolving enough to satisfy viewers and keeping them eager to know what happens next.

Still, she avoids the main pitfalls of adapting Dickens, such as messing up the pacing and getting bogged down in comic dialogue. The narrative moves along briskly and the humour is spot-on, refreshingly cynical and quite dark for Dickens.

The cinematography is suitably Dickensian – fog everywhere, draughty-looking shacks and dusty mirrors – but there are some modern takes on the gothic creepiness.

Unlike in Andrea Arnold’s recent film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, there are no jolts when the two adult leads take over from the child leads. The groundwork for the adults’ messy situations has already been solidly laid in the first half of the episode – all the adults have to do is pick up the ball and run with it.

Oscar Kennedy plays the young Pip with a nonchalant sweetness that Douglas Booth as the adult Pip catches adroitly and evolves into a heartfelt desire on the part of his character to improve himself and make himself ‘worthy’ of the adult Estella (Vanessa Kirby), now doomed never to be able to love or trust a man out of loyalty to her crazy adoptive mum. As ever, Ray Winstone is memorable as rogue with a heart of gold Magwitch.

Miss Haversham’s eccentricities range from the tragicomic – drifting around spectrally in an old wedding dress – to the disturbing – scratching the back of her right hand until she has a very un-spectral weeping scab on it. It will be interesting to see how Helena Bonham-Carter’s performance holds up against it when the film airs next year.

Great Expectations begins at 9pm on Tuesday 27th December 2011 on BBC One.

> Buy the book on Amazon.

Watch the trailer…

Are you enjoying the BBC’s Dickens season so far? Let us know below…