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BBC-produced 'Great Expectations': Beautiful, largely faithful

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Gillian Anderson plays Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations."

Courtesy of © Nicola Dove/BBC

With a stipend from an anonymous benefactor, the orphan Pip becomes a “gentleman of expectations” in 1800s London, and the reclusive Miss Havisham, after being jilted on her wedding day, plots revenge by teaching her ward Estella to break Pip’s heart.

So begins the Charles Dickens masterpiece, “Great Expectations,” which has been adapted to the small screen by BBC Programmes and will air in two parts at 8 p.m. on Sundays, April 1 and 8, on KUED Ch. 7.

How successful is the adaptation of the 700-page novel to a four-hour miniseries? Are you a Dickens purist or a casual viewer anticipating good drama?

Let’s acknowledge that Dickens scholars will be upset with any adaptation. Some characters must be sacrificed or re-invented, scenes condensed and the majesty of Dickens’ first-person prose must be converted to spoken dialogue. But the rest of us can sit back and enjoy this largely faithful and captivating drama.

Filmed with all the detailed attention of a Steven Spielberg epic, “Great Expectations” is beautiful to behold. The large cast gives superb portrayals of the multilayered characters and, as its highest praise, the three-decade-spanning story doesn’t feel rushed. Each player in the narrative is nicely introduced and plot machinations clearly presented.

From the opening scene, when the muddy arm of the convict Magwitch reaches out of a slimy marsh to grab to young Pip’s ankle, viewers are transported into Pip’s world. The first of the two parts is the most skillfully adapted, and the story moves smoothly.

Gillian Anderson, the only exception to the all-British cast, is a ghostly, demented Miss Havisham, though it can be argued that she is too young and too pretty for the role. A series of young actors play Pip and Estella as they mature, and each is more skilled than the last. Ray Winstone is splendidly menacing as Magwitch.

It’s in part two that the storytelling is muddled and scenes added for no apparent reason. Although Pip is disgusted with the Bentley Drummle character, calling him a “clumsy, contemptible, sulky booby,” Drummle and Pip are pals of sorts, with Drummle attempting to soil Pip’s virtue by taking him to a brothel that is nowhere to be found in the novel.

Douglas Booth has the chiseled good looks of a fashion model and acts with passion as Pip. The weakest characterization is by Vanessa Kirby, who plays the beautiful Estella. Kirby struggles to demonstrate Estella’s conflicts and is not nearly as cruel as in the novel.

And now to the ending of “Great Expectations.” After Dickens was told the tale’s conclusion was too bleak, he wrote a second, more romantic future life for Pip and Estella. The ending in this adaptation takes pieces of each, leaning most heavily on Pip being destined for Estella.

How appropriate each ending is to “Great Expectations” will continue to be debated. And it will only intensify when a big-screen version, with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, is released next year. The cinematic adaptation will take on even more creative license with a wholly invented ending, taking Pip and Estella in different directions.

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