Friday, March 30, 2012

Dickens Bicentennial: Great Expectations

Just in time for Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, the BFI discovered what is thought to be the earliest Dickens silent film: G.A. Smith’s The Death of Poor Joe, circa 1901, depicting a brief scene from Oliver Twist. Over one hundred years later, the Dickens canon is still a source of inspiration for both cinema and television. PBS’s Masterpiece Classic celebrates the Dickens Centennial with two new (at least for American audiences) productions, starting this Sunday with Great Expectations (promo here).

Phillip Pirrip is simply known as Pip. It is not just a nickname. It will become his identity. As a young orphan, Pip encounters Abel Magwitch on the moors. Though terrified, the lad helps the escaped convict, at the risk of incurring his guardian older sister’s wrath. Shortly after Magwitch’s capture, Pip is enlisted to serve as the companion to Estella Havisham, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham, a mysterious spinster with a tragic past.

His trips to Miss Havisham’s Satis House are strange affairs, but they lead Pip to believe her interest will raise him out of his mean station. Yet, as soon as his hopes are raised, his would be patroness arbitrarily dashes them. However, when a mysterious benefactor arranges for Pip to live the life of a gentleman in London and assume a considerable fortune upon reaching legal adulthood, Pip assumes he is back in the Havishams’ good graces.

Yes, this is definitely Great Expectations (Masterpiece’s second adaptation as it happens, and fifteenth Dickens work overall), following the source novel quite scrupulously. The only question is which ending screenwriter Sarah Phelps chose: the more cinematic and canonical upbeat ending or Dickens’ original conclusion favored by critics such as George Orwell.

In fact, her treatment nicely captures the spirit of the great novel, well establishing the major supporting characters so viewers can fully appreciate the significance when they reappear in different contexts. Perhaps most importantly, she and director Brian Kirk devote sufficient time to Pip’s relationship with Herbert Pocket, his onetime rival turned intimate friend. In a way, their friendship proves people can change for the better, which is one of the novel’s central questions.

Expectations should also interest Game of Thrones fans, featuring three alumni: Kirk at the helm, Mark Addy as the blowhard Mr. Pumblechook and Harry Lloyd engagingly earnest as Pocket (a complete departure from the entitled Viserys Targaryen). However, much of the attention will center on Gillian Anderson as a decidedly younger, but rather spooky Miss Havisham. Indeed, her portrayal of an emotional stunted woman almost literally haunted by her past, as well as Kirk’s embrace of the story’s gothic elements, should appeal to genre viewers.

Always reliable, Ray Winstone is perfectly cast as Magwitch, projecting the appropriate ferocity and sensitivity, depending on the circumstances. Masterpiece regular David Suchet also adds a dash of roguish flavor as Mr. Jaggers, the solicitor administering Pip’s trust. Unfortunately, the charisma and chemistry of romantic leads Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby is somewhat lacking, but as with most good Dickens productions, Expectations can be easily enjoyed for the secondary characters.

Great Expectations is solidly entertaining television, even if the tragic love story fizzles somewhat. Unequally divided into one and two hour installments, it is freely recommended for its meaty supporting turns and rich period trappings when it premieres on most PBS outlets this Sunday (4/1), concluding a week later (4/8), as part of the current season of Masterpiece.