Great Expectations

Great Expectations debuts tonight as a part of PBS’ Masterpiece series. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets—but you should check local listings.

“It is wise not to plan the years ahead too completely,” Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) tells young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) in the BBC’s latest adaptation of Great Expectations. “Everything can change in a heartbeat.” Miss Havisham, whose way of dealing with the disgrace of having been left at the altar is to hole up in her decaying mansion, with her decaying wedding cake, and tutor her adopted daughter Estella in how to destroy a man’s life by breaking his heart, knows what she’s talking about. So does Anderson. Back when The X-Files was an ongoing pop-culture juggernaut, and her co-star David Duchovny was regularly getting a lot of well-deserved praise for his work as Fox Mulder, many people persisted in talking as if Anderson might have to support herself by taking in laundry once the show went off the air. 

Anderson was only 25 when that series premièred, and if you look at some of the early episodes now, you may think that you can see her learning to act on-camera. But by the time Duchovny scaled back his involvement in the show so that he could take part in some movies that made David Caruso feel much better about his film career, Anderson was more than ready to take command of center stage. And in the 10 years since the series ended, she’s shown the remarkable range and adventurous daring of a major actress. She’s managed to do it while taking so few roles—most of them in such out-of-the-way places—that seeing a new Gillian Anderson performance has become something akin to spotting Elvis at the laundromat.

This is the fifth TV version of Great Expectations, the previous one having come out in 1999, a year after Alfonso Cuarón’s alternately enchanted and awkwardly messed-up “contemporary” movie version. So however well it manages to tell the bare bones of the story, a new adaptation kind of needs a reason to justify its existence. It has one in Anderson, just as she provided one of the best reasons to see the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House, even for those of us who were weaned on the classic BBC version of the same book from 20 years earlier. The classic screen adaptation of Dickens’ novel is the 1946 David Lean movie, with Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. Hunt’s interpretation set the mold for every actress who’s played the character in a movie or TV show since. Her Miss Havisham was regal and imposing, a woman of means who thought she had the real to treat other people as her own private ant colony. Her madness had a hand in shaping how she chose to wield her power, but she would have had the power, and probably the attitude toward her social inferiors, even if she’d married her suitor and lived happily ever after.

Anderson (who’s said that she never saw the Lean film, or any other screen version of the novel) goes her own way. The key to her performance might be Miss Havisham’s describing herself as “a ghost of a bride.” Her hair—white, to match her fading wedding gown—is worn in ringlets, and she speaks in a spooky, girlish singsong voice, her speech punctuated by birdlike movements of her head. In her bleached-Goth splendor, she’s rather Tim Burton-esque, and it adds to the poignance of performance that she’s still a spectacularly beautiful woman, despite seeing herself as a tainted remnant of another, happier time, unwanted and untouchable. (The fact that Anderson is only 43  has been seen by some Dickens purists as an excuse to break out the smelling salts—although, as Anderson herself has pointed out, she’s only three years younger than Hunt was when she played the role.)  Unlike Hunt and all the Miss Havishams who’ve come after her, she’s virtually devoid of hauteur, and when her relatives come to check up on her, she hides in her room in terror, as if she thought that being gazed upon by those who knew her when she was still foolish enough to have romantic hopes would cause her to crumple into dust. She’d be a sad, harmless mouse of a woman if her money didn’t give her the power to warp the lives of innocents. 

The central innocents are Estella (played, as a child, by Izzy Meikle-Small and, as an adult, by Vanessa Kirby) and the orphaned Pip (who grows into Douglas Booth), who Miss Havisham brings into her home so that Estella can learn to play with him, like a cat being taught to play with a mouse. Booth, a pretty boy who’s played Boy George on TV and is starring as Romeo in a forthcoming version of Romeo And Juliet, does about as well as actors usually do with one of Dickens’ virtuous, good-looking young heroes, which ain’t much. Like John Mills in the David Lean movie, but with less pouty-eyes sincerity, he’s a still center that a viewer can project onto while enjoying the carnival of oversized characters that circulate around him. Vanessa Kirby, on the other hand, is a surprise as an exceptionally high-strung Estella. 

Other beautiful young actresses who’ve played the part have mostly just looked confused about how to make this programmed-to-destroy tantalizer seem likable. Compared to the likes of Valerie Hobson and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirby isn’t a smooth, glossy beauty. She looks as if she’s caught at some indeterminate point between duckling and swan, and there’s a strong undercurrent of self-hatred and martyrdom, mixed with anger at what’s been done to her. (“I am what you designed me to be,” she tells Miss Havisham, who’s begun to have second thoughts about her life’s work.) It makes her that much more alluring, and makes Pip’s inability to shake off his feelings for her more plausibly sympathetic than it’s been in previous versions; she needs saving. (Both Booth and Kirby are much taller than Gillian Anderson, which gives an apt, surreal edge to their reunion scenes: It’s as if the crazy old bat is literally shrinking out of existence.) 

Directed by Brian Kirk, this Great Expectations breaks fast out of the gate. The dark-and-stormy early scenes on the marsh have the look and feel of a horror movie, and Ray Winstone, as the escaped convict Magwitch, is just what many a small boy playing in a deserted area imagined might be lurking around the next tree. (Though it would have to be one big-ass tree.) The cast also includes the BBC’s resident arrogant know-it-all, David Suchet, as the lawyer Jaggers, Paul Ritter as his irreplaceable clerk Wimmick, Harry Lloyd as the born sidekick Herbert Pocket, Perdita Weeks as his sweetie, Claire Rushbrook as Pip’s sister, and Mark Addy as their uncle, who says things like, “If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas, when can you beat him?” Because Dickens was often serenely untroubled about providing a fair and balanced view of his most despicable characters, some of the actors who get to play out-and-out villains are in clover. (One character, who’s trying to make his fortune by delivering Magwitch to his archenemy, hisses, “Us doesn’t know [where he is] yet… Us knows where he’s been. Us knows who to watch to get him,” and just about turns into Gollum right before your eyes, without computerized assistance. But it’s Gillian Anderson who turns this production into something more than a very good retelling of a story that’s been told very well before (and probably will be again). Her Miss Havisham is so intent on denying her pain by turning herself into a memory that she’s hushed even when she’s engulfed in flames. In her last moments, she emits a little yelping noise, like someone easing into a bath that’s too hot, and seems to disappear like a dried-up husk blowing away on a strong breeze.