Masterpiece Classic, Period Drama

Great Expectations 2012: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations has been adapted no less than fourteen times for the screen. Like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, every ten years or so it gets trotted out for a new interpretation; and, for good reason. The tale is a masterpiece of storytelling – compelling to read, and fabulous to experience filmed.

Douglas Booth as Pip in Great Expectations (2012)

Since the 1970’s I have watched all of the new adaptations as they aired on television and re-watched the 1946 David Lean movie several times. Some were memorable, others, not so much. In the scheme of things, Masterpiece Classic’s new mini-series of Great Expectations that concluded last night on PBS was definitely a keeper.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Of all of Dickens’ cannon of incredible stories, Great Expectations is one of my favorites. Filled with amazing characterizations, we meet the incredibly good and the incredibly bad in human nature: innocent orphans, devious murders, slimy blackguards, unscrupulous lawyers, cold-hearted ingénues, and Miss Havisham. Yes. Since the book’s publication in the 1860’s, Miss Havisham has earned her own classification. If Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff are literary romantic icons, then Miss Havisham is their polar opposite. To be trite, there is no fury like a woman scorned. Jilted at the altar, she is obsessive, manipulative and revengeful, sending shivers into the souls of rakes, libertines and bounders – and making young maidens wiser beyond their years. She is one of my favorite fictional characters and the benchmark for every new adaptation of Great Expectations. If Miss Havisham is spot-on twisted, then you know that the rest will follow. Happily, actress Gillian Anderson gave an unnerving performance as the eccentric, wacked-out, misandrist that was nails on chalkboard disturbing. Even though I knew the outcome of the story, I was compelled to watch as she weaves her revenge until her tragic end comes to pass.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

In my mind, screenwriter Sarah Phelps, director Brian Kirk and art director Katherine Law gave Miss H. an other-worldly quality that I had not experienced before in other productions. Dressed in her famous tattered white wedding dress, we truly believe that her world froze the moment she read her fiancé’s letter jilting her on her wedding day. Not only is she dead emotionally, she looks like a ghost haunting her crumbling manor house with the clocks stopped at 11:00, years of dust on every surface, cobwebs across every vertical object and the wedding banquet food rotting in the dining room. Eeek! The first time she literally floated down the massive staircase, I shuddered in horror. This was creepy. Anderson’s glazed over eyes, delayed reactions and hoarse voice only added to her ghostly apparition.  It was not quite Dickens’ original intention, but it worked for me.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Everything about this new production was eclipsed by the great white lady after this point. It seemed quite fitting. A tribute to the grand dame of jilted lovers.

Images courtesy of © MASTERPIECE

14 thoughts on “Great Expectations 2012: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review”

  1. I didn’t watch GE last night with everyone else, as I was at my daughter’s house and she wanted me to stay and watch Downton Abbey with her… her first time through season 2 my fifth…

    but it’s not like you’ve given any spoilers and I’ll be watching online today.
    I’ve heard a lot of negative remarks on this production. Pip was too pretty, Miss H was too pretty. okay, maybe so, but I have loved the production and acting so far. Thanks Laurel and Masterpiece, this is definitely a keeper. I agree


    1. I think I liked it a lot more after watching the second part. I know they adapted the story quite a bit, but very nice job.


  2. Sounds delightfully creepy–I haven’t watched my DVR recordings of this adaptation yet, but really looking forward to it.

    > Happily, actress Gillian Anderson gave an unnerving performance as the eccentric, wacked-out, misandrist that was nails on chalkboard disturbing.

    Loved that description!


  3. Shame on me! Sad to say I’ve neither read ANY Charles Dickens nor seen any film adapations. It is not that I don’t want to; I’ve just not gotten around to it with my already overloaded reading schedule. I must say this offering looks really gooooood!


  4. I’ve only seen the 1st part of this so far. My 12 yr old son watched it with me. He was very creeped out by Miss Havisham. I’m just not completely sold on this actress as Miss Havisham yet. Maybe part 2 will change my mind. (I have to watch it online) My son has not seen any adaptations of this before and is actually very intrigued by it! I’m looking forward to seeing more of the “meat” of the story unfold in the 2nd part, especially between Pip and Estella. This is my favorite Dickens story by far!


  5. I could not sit through it to the end. One of the lamest Masterpiece Theatre presentations that I have ever seen. Miscast in almost every single role. Hand me the airsickness bag.


  6. Before I read Dickens (and only judging from the few film adaptations I had seen), I was put off by the menace of the evil characters and the rags/rotten teeth/filthy living conditions of the poor (which explains why I preferred Jane Austen, who doesn’t “dwell on guilt and misery”). But now I know better. For me, his genius is in the writing itself – the humor and wit found mostly in the narrative passages – which we miss with any film adaptation, including this one. So, let me encourage those who haven’t yet tried, to READ SOME DICKENS! My favorites: Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities.


  7. Watching it for the second time. The Gillian Anderson caricature of Ms. H with her chapped lips is ridiculous. The actors playing both the boy and man Pip are so straight forward and sincere, and that keeps the production going for me.


  8. Excellent post LA! Gillian Anderson was fantastic as Miss Havisham. I read Great Expectations about 30 years ago (YIKES!) I’ll have to go back and read it again.


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