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Masterpiece Theatre, presented on PBS by WGBH, Boston
Internet Movie Database lists seven different versions of Great
Expectations including this new interpretation made by the BBC and broadcast in the
U.S. by Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. The 1860 Dickens novel retains its fascination
generation after generation, and, it seems, each generation is intent upon interpreting
this huge work anew.
The difficulties for a contemporary filmmaker
start with the sheer size of the thing. The book is long, stretches over some thirty or
more years, and is populated with a large cast of characters, all intricately woven into
complex, carefully structured permutations and combinations of relationships. Here, the
screenwriter and filmmaker's task is to whittle away mercilessly in order to convey the
brilliance of Dickens' parable as a cogent story without getting bogged down in the less
essential twists and turns of the plot and the subsidiary characters. At the same time,
care must be taken not to cut so much as to lose the splendid complexity of the work.
A second problem is the sometimes saccharine
sentimentality which is in evidence in the novel. Dickens was writing for a broad public
and to the popular taste of his time. Today's tastes run to a drier, cooler approach.
Tony Marchant's adaptation for this television
production, along with the direction by Julian Jarrold, succeed admirably on the latter
count, less so on the former. The more cloying aspects of the novel have been stripped
away and the focus here is on how the characters interact, with just about everyone
mistreating everyone else.
We meet the protagonist, Pip, as a boy, being
raised by his sister who is a self righteous shrew. Her meanness is balanced only in part
by the love her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, bears for Pip, but Joe is as beaten
down by his wife as Pip is, and they suffer together.
The crucial role of Miss Havisham, played so
often in other productions as a totally dotty older woman, is brilliantly interpreted here
by Charlotte Rampling who manages to provide a subtle veneer of normality which brings
into sharp relief the underlying twisted madness of this ultimate abandoned bride.
Rampling runs away with every scene in which she appears. She, too, is cruel to Pip and
cruel to her ward, Estella, planting seeds of misery which blossom forth as the story
Pip, played as an adult by young heartthrob Ioan
Gruffudd (Wilde, Titanic), finds himself the recipient of an income from an
anonymous benefactor, whom he assumes to be Havisham. He heads to London, in his great
expectations leaving two broken hearts behind him, neither of them icy Estella, the object
of his affections. Pip is ambitious and his great expectations are not only for an
inheritance but for the life of a gentleman and the hand of Estella.
We meet a large cast of characters in London
including Jagger, the lawyer from hell, who plays intermediary between Pip and the unknown
benefactor and sees the world as made up of two sorts: "beaters and cringers."
His clerk, Wemmick, is eccentric even for Dickens. Magwitch, the convict, is played with
depth and understanding by Bernard Hill. His performance is key to making Pip's growth of
character believable. For Pip's great expectations are dashed, one after another, and he
must learn from his misfortunes the values of kindness and selflessness. That is the
arching line of the story, even as the complications compound and the ironies are hammered
Visually, this is a stunningly beautiful
production, using saturated color in dark hues. Repeatedly, images in bright red sing out
against the prevailing somber palette: a courtyard carpeted with vermilion leaves, the
blood of slaughtered livestock running in the streets of a London market, Estella's
crimson gown, the brightly painted wheels of a carriage, the red paddle wheels of the
steamboat in a climactic scene. David Odd (now there's a Dickensian name!), the
cinematographer, lavishes the screen with frames that seem a sequential series of master
The first hour and a half segment of this three hour production is
faultless; the choices of what to include and what to excise work well to allow
development of character without bogging down in intricacies of plot. The second half,
alas, seems rushed, as the overwhelming amount of exposition required to knit together the
strands of the story result in a feeling of telescoped action.
Nonetheless, this is television of first quality, with fine
performances that bring Dickens' world to life again for another generation.
- Arthur Lazere