The new BBC version of Great Expectations deserves to be blogged about, namely because I find it strangely mesmerising. Released over the Christmas period (Dec 2011), the three-part retelling is written by Sarah Phelps and stars Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby.
My reading of the book two years ago was hardly the prophetic enlightenment it perhaps should have been. I had the best intentions – I thoroughly wanted to enjoy it and find in Dickens’ words the deep meaning that so many have over the past century-and-a-bit, although I must admit that my disjointed reading habits led to a rather mismatched understanding of the novel. As a result, I would never have expected for this version to appeal to me so much. The sumptuous styling of the locations (the BBC themselves aptly stating it as lavish) greatly align with the costumes, making it a picture-perfect period drama, and yet these do not detract from the performances of the actors themselves. Booth seems to have been created purely for the part of Pip and I find his performance captivating. He’s gotten a lot of stick for being ‘too pretty’ or ‘too pouty’ to play the rough orphan Pip, but I hardly see how this is relevant to his acting abilities. He doesn’t ride on his looks; it’s part and parcel. Vanessa Kirby as Stella, whilst not much like how I envisaged her, is frightfully cruel and stony, much as she should be. The only casting peeves I have are those of Miss Havisham and Joe Gargery (played by Gillian Anderson and Shaun Dooley). The Havisham of my imagination is far older and bitterer than Anderson’s, who, at 43 years old is the youngest Havisham yet, and portrays her with a strange other-worldly presence. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite click for me. Dooley as Joe is no real issue, except for the blankness he uses as the void for education; I’d always pictured Joe as inquisitive, and if not intelligent, then at least quick-minded, witty through Dickens’ sharp words. Ray Winstone’s Magwitch is an interesting interpretation to say the least, but I do feel a slight reserve. Winstone is known for his brute image, but I didn’t really feel that from him. But maybe that’s just a personal issue with big angry bald guys.
But then I think that’s the danger with any literature adaptation, particularly with a beacon testament such as Great Expectations – everyone has a different picture in their mind that they feel is the right one. In my opinion, Phelps has done a good job, fixing a variety of ideas into a smooth adaptation that I want to watch again. But that is solely my opinion, and everyone else will feel differently. For example, in a review for the Guardian, Howard Jacobson said that the BBC had “eviscerated Dickens” and that it would have “made Dickens snort”. You or I may find this too severe, or you may take the same view; it’s just a further example of how something as sacred as this will always induce win-lose situations. Even so, 6.6 million viewers is not bad going. Interestingly, whilst Great Expectations is my father’s favourite novel in existence, this interpretation reportedly did nothing for him. He favours one of the older versions, one that I found difficult to remain interested in. This is odd, as usually our tastes are very much in synchronisation. Nevertheless, the oddity hasn’t dispelled my own appreciation for it and so I look forward to the DVD release with much eager anticipation.
Favourite line: "Do not think, Pip. It never leads to anywhere edifying." - Mr Jaggers, to Pip.