PBS raises “Great Expectations” with a two-part miniseries

When we heard that Gillian Anderson was playing Miss Havisham in the BBC’s Great Expectations, we certainly had great expectations of the drama.

And while Anderson’s performance certainly is memorable enough to be nightmare inducing, the series itself is almost as gloomy as the famously tragic Miss H.

In case you haven’t read Great Expectations — or haven’t read it since high school — it tells the tale of an orphaned boy named Pip who is being raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband Joe. Joe is the only person in Pip’s life who is kind to him and Pip wants to learn his trade.

Another of Pip’s uncles learns that the wealthy, reclusive Miss Havisham wants a young boy to play with her adopted daughter Estella. He volunteers Pip, sure that a reward will follow. Pip grows enamored with Estella as well as a more privileged lifestyle. Miss Havisham, who has worn her wedding gown since she was jilted at the altar, sends mixed messages about supporting his quest to better himself.


Eventually she sends him back to Joe with payment for a blacksmith apprenticeship. Pip is devastated.

Years later, an anonymous benefactor offers to pay for Pip to go to London to learn to be a gentleman on the condition that he not question the source. He assumes its Miss Havisham, a premise she doesn’t contradict when he visits her.


The rest of the story focuses on Pip’s experiences in London, reconnecting with Estella and incurring debt to support a lavish lifestyle. To avoid spoilers, suffice to say that reality falls far short of Pip’s great expectations.

The BBC production, which originally ran in the UK in December (the reason for the holiday frames at the end of the clips), comes to the U.S. as a Masterpiece Classic on PBS, complete with a Laura Linney introduction. The production is as lavish as we expect from a BBC costume drama with a sort of gloomy, haunted quality, even in the scenes beyond Miss Havisham’s dilapidated house.

Once you see Havisham, any doubts that Anderson was too young or beautiful to play her are gone. In that dirty, crumbling wedding dress and ratty white hair that is the color of her deathly pale skin, she looks just like the ghost she claims her fiancé is. She is also in dire need of Chapstick.

Anderson told Vulture that she found the singsong voice after the first few readings of the script. Miss Havisham sounds a bit like a child and never varies the tone, whether her words are loving or hateful. It works. In fact, most everything about Anderson’s performance works. I would have no trouble imagining her performance becoming the definitive one for the character. (And I say that knowing that Helena Bonham Carter is about to play the part in a new movie.)

What doesn’t work quite as well is the transition between the two actors who play Pip. Young Pip, Oscar Kennedy, is easy to believe as the character in the novel. But Douglas Booth, who plays grownup Pip, is just too pretty — prettier than Estella. And he looks nothing like Kennedy.

You’ll recognize Sexy Beast‘s Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Poirot‘s David Suchet as Jaggers. Never Let Me Go‘s Izzy Meikle-Small plays young Estella and The Hour‘s Vanessa Kirby plays her as a grownup.

I’m not sure why Kirby’s hotness was toned down for Estella — Miss H. raised her to be a seductive beauty and she certainly could have been a more believable match for Booth’s Pip.

If you watch Great Expectations expecting the kind of lively language and periodic comedy that marks Dickens’ novel, you will be disappointed. The miniseries is very bleak, from start to finish. And I think Dickens’ depressing stories are bearable only because of his humor.

Don’t get me wrong; the miniseries is a very well done drama. It has suspense and atmosphere and good acting and beautiful cinematography. I watched the whole thing in one sitting because I wanted to know what happened next. Great Expectations is worth watching — as long as you’re not looking for Dickens.

Great Expectations airs in two parts: April 1 and April 8 on PBS. Watch it and let us know what you think. Do you agree that it doesn’t feel like Dickens? What do you think of Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham? If you’ve seen other versions of the classic, how would you compare them to this one?