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Great Expectations (BBC 2023): John C Adams Reviews

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens has been so regularly adapted for film and TV that there are a wonderful array of productions to choose from.

I’ve selected two. The most recent, 2023, production from the BBC and also an older, more traditional adaptation from 2011.

Great Expectations BBC 2023

Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight was asked to oversee this adaptation of a classic novel that usually has lots of ribbons and bonnets to its name.

Naturally, this version has its own unique feel and isn’t quite like any previous adaptation I’ve seen.

This production is based on the Dickens novel, and it isn’t necessarily as directly faithful to the storyline as most adaptations.

Young Pip (Tom Sweet) is living with his sister Sara (Hayley Squires) and brother-in-law Joe (Owen McDonnell) when two convicts escape from prison ships and swim to shore. Pip encounters them both on the marshes.

One is Abel Magwitch (Johnny Harris), who Pip helps to escape, and the other is Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle), a fraudster and charmer. Both are trying to kill each other.

Later, Pip is offered the chance to visit a wealthy local woman Miss Havisham (Olivia Coleman) and meet her ward Estella (Chloe Lea).

These meetings go on for years and Pip’s family are recompensed for his time. Estella and her adopted mother torment Pip while also moulding him into a gentleman.

Pip is determined to become rich by working as a merchant in shipping. This is partly so that he can marry the cruel Estella, with whom he has fallen in love.

Miss Havisham is cruel and manipulative. She is addicted to opium and has introduced Estella to the drug. She and Estella also arrange to introduce Pip to other adult pleasures.

By the time he turns eighteen, Pip (now played by Fionn Whitehead) leaves to earn his fortune in the city, working with Miss Havisham’s lawyer Mr Jaggers (Ashley Thomas).

The work is gritty, unpleasant and involves forging documents, entering into fraudulent insurance contracts and moving more than one dead body.

It also takes Pip into the opium dens of London, and he develops an addiction to the drug.

Jaggers and Pip are in business with newly rich Bentley Drummle (Matthew Needham), who has made his money importing nutmeg. The latter is Estella’s suitor, but Miss Havisham arranges the marriage and the two have never actually met. When they do, they hate each other.

As is clear from the above introduction, the plot is very different to previous adaptations. Rather than go to London, waste the inheritance from his mysterious benefactor and end up penniless, Pip is here a hardworking lad who wishes to earn his riches. Likewise, Drummle is self-made, rather than the ‘next heir but one’ to a baronetcy. In contrast, Miss Havisham’s cousin Herbert Pocket is still wasteful and lazy, without proper employment.

The compromised nature of Mr Jaggers’ business is brought out more fully than in other adaptations and he becomes one of the central characters. Others such as the employee who attacks Pip’s sister and the young lady engaged to Herbert Pocket are simply written out completely.

There is a lot more violence and much more time is spent in the London underworld and opium dens. There is less focus on romance, society and Estella’s romance with Drummle.

I liked this adaptation for its fresh approach and desire to reach a wider and perhaps different audience than a traditional period drama. The acting was excellent, the sets and locations really evocative, and the alterations to the core plot in no way reduced my enjoyment.

Would Dickens approve? I think so.

Great Expectations (2011 TV series)

Great Expectations was also produced as a three-part TV series in 2011. Gillian Anderson played Miss Havisham, David Suchet was cast as Mr Jaggers, Ray Winstone appeared as Abel Magwitch and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown) played Estella.

I loved the softness of Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham. The trauma of her past treatment by Compeyson and the effect this had on arresting her psychological development at the point of a young woman is to the fore. She is softer and more frail than other Miss Havishams have been, both physically and psychologically.

The same was also partly true of Ray Winstone’s Abel Magwitch, with plenty of backstory and a softer characterisation after his return that were in danger of turning the ex-convict into a national treasure.

Water and fire are central to the story of Great Expectations and these produced some memorable images in the 2011 adaptation. The fire that consumes Miss Havisham is balanced by the fire images of gunfire and the forge at the beginning of the tale.

Water represents flowing emotions and escape, as Abel is deported to Australia but returns to reunite with Pip. It is the medium for their attempted escape together to start a new life when they row along the Thames to join a boat that will take them to South Africa.

Water is everywhere at the beginning of the story, as the Thames, the English Channel and the marshes of Kent are the setting for Magwitch’s escape and recapture.

I loved this fast-paced adaptation, which balanced Pip’s childhood, his romance with Estella and the Magwitch’s return in equal measure.

Thank you for reading my review.

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