Prior to the release of this new Masterpiece Theatre production, I had never really connected to Great Expectations. I’d seen the modern remake with Gwyneth Paltrow, and suffered through the older miniseries with Ioan Gruffudd. In spite of my enjoyment of him as an actor, the Miss Havisham in that production gave me pedophile-esque heebie-jeebies.
But now, I can finally understand what all the fuss is about. This may even entice me to read the novel, which is a challenge because Dickens can be rather, um, verbose at times, and he has a lot of fun with his subplots. That aside, I loved this miniseries. In fact, it may even give Bleak House a run for its money in terms of my adoration and that’s something I never saw coming. That both star Gillian Anderson is coincidental, but also is giving me an enormous amount of respect for her as a costume drama actress. Having disliked her in The House of Mirth, I wrongly thought she would be best in modern pieces… but I was so wrong, and she has truly found her niche on BBC costume dramas.
What intrigues me most about this story is (what else?) Miss Havisham. Dickens is known for his amazing villains and she is no exception, a woman so consumed with vengeance against the man who broke her heart and jilted her at the altar that she has set her heart to training a young woman to extract revenge on all men. But unlike Dickens’ Mr. Tulkinghorn, Miss Havisham is not a character you can hate… in spite of her evil, she is also pitiable and manages to draw on our sympathy. How can you hate a woman who is so pathetic and so eerily luminous in spite of her shabby surroundings? Gillian is undeniably gorgeous and that adds an unusual but poignant tone to Miss Havisham. Early on, I was questioned on my choice of words in referring to her, since someone took affront to my declaration of her as “evil.” Well, what else do you call a woman who intentionally raises a child’s expectations only to cruelly dash them before his eyes? I speak, of course, of Pip being made to think he will have prospects, only for her to crush his new hopes and aspirations of being worthy of the horrid Estella, by buying him an apprenticeship in the blacksmith shop. If that isn’t evil, I don’t know what is. Yet… she is redeemable. That moment when she breaks down in remorse over what she has done is profoundly moving.
For me, Great Expectations is all about love. How it cannot be earned, but is a gift, and how it is sustained even through hardship. The truly redemptive element is found in Joe, whom Pip treats horribly, but who continues to love and protect him even when it is not deserved. It is strange that a novel about such an utter wretch of a main character could be so compelling, but that is part of its wonder. Pip starts off sweet, and under the instruction of Miss Havisham and his increased “expectations,” turns into a first class jerk. He is not the perfect Nicholas Nickleby, or even the charmingly innocent David Copperfield. He is, rather interestingly, Charles Dickens’ foray into a leading man that is entirely honest, brutally revealing, and utterly sincere. It is about the love of money and fame and how it ruins lives. But like most of Dickens’ heroes, even if he goes astray for a time, Pip discovers the truth in the end, and seeks happiness.
The ending being different from the book may upset many readers, but I like this conclusion. It satisfies much more than the limbo in which Dickens left his characters. Maybe that is the tiny bit of a romantic in my soul, the desire to see encumbrances breached and to believe in happy endings.