Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Great Expectations, We Had the Greatest Expectations"

For a week now, I've not been feeling particularly well so I've been spending my spare time resting as much as possible. Mostly, this has meant laying down and watching something or other that I've already seen so that I'll fall asleep sooner rather than later. But last night I was getting a little bored of just re-watching TV episodes I'd had seen once or twice already. So I scrolled through my Netflix queue looking for something to lift my spirits a little and ended up choosing the most recent TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic novel Great Expectations from the BBC and PBS's Masterpiece Theatre - I know, super cheery, right?

Going into viewing the 2011 version of Great Expectations, I didn't have much by way of expectations actually. Somehow, despite my love of costume dramas based on great literature (and in this case, based on a beloved book by one of my favorite authors), I hadn't really heard any buzz about this adaptation. Basically, the only reason it was on my radar at all was because I had heard that Gillian Anderson played the character of the eccentric Miss Havisham. Based on the strength of Ms. Anderson's previous acting chops alone (okay, and my love of Dickens), I decided to check this version out. Almost immediately, I was blown away on how well done this adaptation was and enjoyed this fresh look at the work. Stunning cinematography, haunting music that enhanced the ambiance, authentic settings, and excellent costuming and make-up were just the beginning of great elements brought together for this adaptation.

I'd be the first to admit that Dickens can be melodramatic at times (hey, it was the Victorian era he was writing in), and it seems that previous adaptations of Great Expectations liked to yuk this up. Instantly, the viewer sees that's not going to be the case in this version. Instead, we have a realistic view of Victorian England, the gritty underside to all those beautiful costume dramas to which we've become accustomed. The miniseries opens - as the book does - with Magwitch escaping a prison ship and coming across the young Pip on the marshes on his way back home after visiting his parents' graves in the little churchyard nearby. Dickens describes Magwitch as "A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin." In past versions, Magwitch seems only frightful to a young boy like Pip and perhaps has a smudge of dirt on his face and some unkempt hair. But this Magwitch is terrifying on first sight and shocks the viewer as much as he does Pip. He is covered in mud and blood and is more than menacing (nearly savage) when he happens upon Pip along the dreary and isolated marshes, and that's when the viewer immediately knows this is going to be a different kind of adaptation. Everywhere you look, there is something realistic about the characters and settings, down to the minutest details like the peeling paint on the Gargerys' house and the constant mud holes in the lane leading up to their home. It doesn't matter if some of those attempts for realism involve grit and grime: this is the England that Dickens knew and wrote about and not all of it is pretty.

And it's not just in appearances alone that we have a different take on the classic novel - it's also in the characters. Two of the most iconic characters from Great Expectations are that of Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham is perhaps best described as the melodramatic extreme of the scorned spinster. After having been jilted on her wedding day, time just stops for Miss Havisham and she never picks up her life again. When introducing this character for the first time, Dickens describes her as thus:

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see. She was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass. It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.
It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.
So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust. 
In previous adaptations, Miss Havisham is presented almost as a quaintly eccentric woman who doesn't leave her house much and occasionally dons her would-be wedding dress but otherwise seems to hold it together. In this adaptation, Gillian Anderson plumbs much deeper psychological depths to bring to the screen a truly pathetic - and in turn, frightening - Miss Havisham. This Miss Havisham is fragile both psychologically and physically. She has a deep fear of abandonment - a self-fulfilling complex of abandonment, actually - and hungers desperately for the little companionship she has in Estella. She stands with her head tilted toward her listeners and eagerly awaits to see how her words will impact the listener: 'Am I getting the desired result or not?' she seems to worry.
Anderson as Miss Havisham
Her hair is not brushed and coming more undone and wild over time, her feet are bare and dirty, her lips are severely chapped, and her skin is unearthly in its paleness. Miss Havisham still carries herself as a lady in her posture and gait, but her mental illness manifests itself clearly - and outside of her control when she is nervous - in a self-mutilating tic of picking at her hand in the same spot until it festers. To play Miss Havisham, Anderson adjusted her voice to a breathy falsetto, which serves to reinforce the idea of her being fragile while also giving her an otherworldly eeriness. She is truly an object of pity mixed with a frightful glimpse at what mental illness can do to a person. This Miss Havisham makes you wonder what she was like before being jilted and how stable she would have been even if she had married Compeyson as she wished.

Again, the setting for Miss Havisham doesn't shy away from the grime and it's through this disturbing lens that we gain further insight into Miss Havisham's clouded state of mind. Other adaptations have shown a house that looks more or less pristine with some items related to Miss Havisham's planned wedding remaining untouched like a monument of woe. Not so here. Satis House is crumbling beneath Miss Havisham's feet, and she is doing nothing to fix it. If anything, she is actively working against its upkeep. Everything is covered in a layer of dust, nay, layers of dust. A banquet hall with a set table - complete with a three-tiered wedding cake - falls further into decay as time passes. The house, not terribly far from the damp marshes, suffers other decomposition as well, including moldy, rotten walls and moth-eaten curtains. As the years pass and Miss Havisham increasingly unravels, her mansion follows suit. In this respect, Satis House becomes a character of its own and like its mistress, it is a fascinating train wreck: you can't tear your eyes away from it, but it is terrible to behold.

With her addled mind, Miss Havisham has extrapolated from her experience with Compeyson that all men are evil and must be punished for their eventual betrayal of the women who love them. She plans to enact her revenge through Estella, the little girl she adopted for the purpose of raising up to be a heartbreaker, although her exact means of achieving this are unclear (i.e., she intends for Estella to marry well, which seems an odd means of breaking hearts and manipulating men. This is the Victorian era after all and married women have basically no rights over their husbands; far better for Estella to enter and break engagements if Miss Havisham's goal is to punish men). As such, Miss Havisham sends for Pip to become Estella's occasional playmate when they are both children for Estella to practice on and perfect her skill of making men love her. Poor Pip, an innocent young boy unused to such mind games, is completely unaware of this and his money-grubbing sister and uncle see nothing but dollar signs in the arrangement so they do not stop to consider the motives behind such a request.

With this unhealthy arrangement and upbringing by a such a sad character as Miss Havisham, Estella is generally portrayed as a cold and cruel; in fact, she says as much in the source material: "do you reproach me for being cold? ...  You should know," said Estella. "I am what you have made me." But here both actresses who play Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small as a child and Vanessa Kirby as an adult) add another dimension. This Estella is clearly damaged by her life experiences, emotionally as well as psychologically. When she says the line above, it is not merely a statement of fact as some actors deliver the line, it is also a haughty payback meant to wound Miss Havisham as well as an expression of regret. This is an Estella you can empathize with and one that allows you to see why Pip has loved her for so many years. She is someone who has no concept of how to interact naturally with other human beings, whose manipulations are perhaps just as much a product of not understanding the workings of a sane person as they are an enactment of Miss Havisham's wishes for vengeance.

This new interpretation of Estella made me start really thinking about the female characters of Great Expectations. Perhaps because this was the first full Dickens novel I ever read (after first being exposed to his arguably most famous work, the novella A Christmas Carol), it hadn't occurred to me before how unlike a typical Dickensian heroine Estella is. As much as I love Dickens, he was a product of his era and as such, his female characters - when they aren't throwaway characters of little consequence or evil villains like Madame DeFarge of A Tale of Two Cities - are mostly the Victorian stereotype of "the light of the home." Think of sweet little angel characters with no personality of their own who make a welcoming home that shelters the men in their lives from the cruel outside world, and you've got the main idea. You've got your Lucie Manettes (A Tale of Two Cities), your Agnes Wickfields (David Copperfield), even your Mrs. Micawbers (also David Copperfield), etc. Estella, however, does not fit this mold - she's a far more complex heroine and perhaps that's why she's one of the few female characters in Dickens's novels to have such appeal that even contemporary songwriters are sitting "by my bedside with papers and poetry about Estella" ("Great Expectations" by The Gaslight Anthem; the title for this blog post also comes from this song's lyrics). And, even though she clearly inflicts emotional and psychological damage on both Estella and Pip, Miss Havisham is by no means an unredeemable villain like Madame DeFarge or even Miss Murdstone from David Copperfield. As I explained above, she is at times a pitiable character and when it starts to dawn on her what monsters she has created out of her own unquenchable grief, there is nothing left to do but forgive her for her role in creating turmoil in the young people's lives.

And then there's Mrs. Joe - another complicated character. Mostly she's a character you like to hate, or at least dislike, and that's the quality most picked up in this TV adaptation. Despite being Pip's first guardian and his sister, she's always referred to in reference to her husband, as it is the lovable Joe who cares the most for Pip emotionally. But despite Mrs. Joe's "rampages" against both her husband and Pip and her frequent desire to see herself "raised up" above her station by any means possible (even if it means selling out her younger brother), she is the one who raises young Pips and cares for his physical needs. In this way, she is still a variation of the light of the home stereotype. When she is later bludgeoned and turned into a vegetable, there is nothing left but pity for her unenviable life. Meanwhile, because there apparently needs to be the obligatory light of the home stereotype from Mr. Dickens, we also have here some perfect examples of that character. We occasional hear of and see the perfectly amiable, lovely, and complete forgettable character of Clara, the fiancĂ© of Pip's friend Herbert Pocket. Not seen in this TV adaptation (because even with a three-hour miniseries, Dickens needs to be condensed) is the character of Miss Skiffins who also exemplifies this stereotype.
Having thoroughly examined the female characters, now it's time to explore the men of Great Expectations. Of course, we have to start with the hero - and narrator, in the book - of our story, young Philip Pirrip, known to all simply as Pip. I absolutely loved Oscar Kennedy, the actor who played Pip as a child. He so perfectly captured Pip's many emotions from fear of the escaped convicts to enraptures with Estella. His tour de force is most likely in the scene in which he and Joe travel on special request to Miss Havisham's estate to discuss his future. Pip is all smiles as he listens to Miss Havisham's praise of his exceptionalism, expecting to be given something to make him a gentleman worthy of Estella. Instead she offers to pay for his apprenticeship to become a blacksmith like Joe. Instantly, the light goes out of Pip's eyes and the smile fades as he realizes that Miss Havisham means for him to be shamed with this proposal, that she is reminding him of his place as a tradesman. Still, Pip realizes that this is gift should be recognized as generous and one that will please Joe especially. So he holds his tongue and tries to show appreciation for Miss Havisham's deed. But it is indeed a struggle to do so, and we see this in a look he gives Miss Havisham that seems to convey that he could murder her in that moment. It is a magnificent, albeit heartbreaking, scene.

Booth as Pip
Compare this to the rather emotionless expression we see on the older Pip's face when he reacts to the news that he has a benefactor and will receive a fortune. As you might gather then, I was less endeared to Douglas Booth as the older Pip, who seemed miscast to me. Something about him - perhaps his "pretty boy" looks - did not seem fitting with the "boy from the forge," even if most of adult years on screen are part of his life after he receives a gift from an anonymous donor (who he presumes to be Miss Havisham come around on the idea that he and Estella are meant for one another) to make a gentleman of him and send him off to London. Nonetheless, there is nothing I can say that was technically wrong with Booth's performance in the final two episodes of the series in which he stars. He did a fine job of conveying all of Pip's emotions during his roller-coaster London years, which include such scenes as: embarrassment at Joe's arrival to Pip's fancy club in London; jealousy of Mr. Drummle's attention to Estella; betrayal and anger on so many occasions; and many others bundled up together over the course of a dramatic denouement.

Rounding out the male cast is Shaun Dooley as Joe, who does an excellent job portraying the long-suffering blacksmith married to a woman who is first argumentative and then severely disabled while being guardian to her rather ungrateful brother. Dooley's portrayal makes your heart say "aww, poor Joe" or "yeah, good old Joe" every time he is on screen, depending on the situation. Joe is the linchpin in Pip's life and he is undoubtedly one of the most endearing characters in Great Expectations. Another very likable character is Herbert Pocket, who becomes Pip's mentor in gentlemanly ways and closest friend in London. Herbert is ever cheerful and optimistic, with a smile on his face whether he's talking about how his family cut him off financially or an escaped convict is literally holding a knife to his throat. Herbert is played expertly by Harry Lloyd, who is apparently a direct descendent of Dickens (an interesting turn of events given that the character was most likely originally based at least in part on Dickens's son Charley).

Pip's other notable London acquaintances include his solicitor Mr. Jaggers (a slippery character of questionable morals who holds nearly all the secrets of Great Expectations close to his vest); Jaggers's chief clerk Wemmick (outwardly rough but with a kind heart); and Mr. Drummle (a cretinous son of a baronet who is attracted to Estella). And, of course, we have the two escaped convicts - Magwitch and Compeyson. Magwitch is well played by Ray Winstone, who does excellent work convincingly changing Magwitch from savagely aggressive to fatherly compassionate at a moment's notice. Compeyson's bit role is played by Paul Rhys, who perfectly embodies the stereotypical Victorian gentleman villain. I leave it up to the viewer to decide whether that it is a good thing or something irksome. Back home, we have Uncle Pumblechook who is always looking for an angle to increase his stature or wallet and Orlick, Joe's assistant at the forge who stops at nothing to bring down those who he feels threaten him - namely, Mrs. Joe and Pip. For the most part, these characters are all well cast in this adaptation, although I felt that Orlick was perhaps over the top in looking the role of a villainous character. (That being said though, I think that if he were cleaned up a little bit, he would make a really great Uriah Heep if someone were to adapt that classic Dickens novel.) Wemmick also seemed perhaps a bit older than I expected for that role and sadly, his part was so condensed in this version that we saw little of the great friendship that ended up existing between him and Pip.

Indeed, as I've mentioned already, this adaptation did take some liberties with the original text. Because in the book we are told the story through Pip's narration, we never see anything outside of his perspective. The TV adaptation is not tied to this literary device, however, and occasionally makes use of seeing things outside of Pip's limited view. More than once, we see shared moments between Miss Havisham and Estella, which further reinforces how twisted Estella's upbringing is. (However, these seemed to come at the expense of seeing more scenes between young Pip and young Estella, which was regrettable. I felt their childhood spent together was rushed over and thus the roots of Pip's unshakable obsession with Estella were not given a great foundation, to mix metaphors a bit.) A later scene shows Miss Havisham writing yet another letter to a now distant Estella asking why she is so silent only to receive at that moment a stack of returned, unopened letters. In her grief Miss Havisham screams Estella's name and in the process ruins that scene for me. As the camera panned to the outside of Satis House with us hearing Miss Havisham belting "Estella!" from inside, my mind immediately went to A Streetcar Named Desire and I was pulled out of the moment into an entirely different literary work.

Although having to condense the lengthy novel into a three-hour miniseries probably plays a part, other changes are not merely a question of eliminating some "extraneous" scenes or reducing some characters' time on screen. The fire at Satis House becomes a far more dramatic - one might even say, melodramatic - moment in this version, although it seems to be fitting with the entirety of Miss Havisham's self-absorbed and ever-grieving persona. Likewise, Magwitch and Compeyson's fights are far more extreme and gritty on screen than in the book. I think changes like these ones work well actually, but the purists will not be pleased with them. There are other times when this modern production seems to think that sexing things up a little bit will make this series more of a hit with today's audience. (I will never understand why producers and/or writers think that fans of Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, etc. will want their classic literature to become more like the sex-filled stories that already everywhere else on TV and in movies.) So here we end up with a very awkward scene in which Drummle takes Pip to a brothel and offers him a pick amongst several women of various ethnic backgrounds. (Sidebar: Drummle is far more antagonistic toward Pip in this version than I recall him being in the book. One can only presume this was to make him an even more an unlikeable character - and I do believe Dickens did not want us to like him - but perhaps this was a bit over the top at times in this production.) There's also a more touching but still out of place scene in which Estella and Pip engage in a Victorian version of skinny-dipping. The ending is rushed along much faster than the decades that drag on in the novel, but I find it difficult to think of any screen adaptation that would not try to speed along that conclusion.

Besides characters and/or events being rushed over or bypassed altogether, there is one other key thing missing from this adaptation: humor. Dickens was a master wordsmith who could write a witty remark into just about any scene (except, of course, for apparently the entirety of the novel A Tale of Two Cities) and he himself noted of Great Expectations, "You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities." But as most of that comedy comes from narration (although sometimes it's present in dialogue), there's little room left for it on the screen. And this adaptation seemed to like to highlight the more macabre and dark moments of the novel, creating suspense and drama to pull viewers in to the story. But this is not a problem with this adaptation only; indeed, I find it sad that anyone who only watches adaptations of Dickens's work will never know how funny he was, for it seems that none of that ever translates to the screen. Hopefully this adaptation will be intriguing enough to draw in new readers to the original novel and perhaps other works by Dickens; I know that I for one am now eager to re-read Great Expectations yet again after watching this production.

No comments:

Post a Comment