Assembling an all-star cast for a new PBS adaptation of one of Charles Dickens' best known and most beloved novels would lead anyone to have expectations of greatness. Unfortunately, the two-part result on "Masterpiece" is something less than the sum of its parts.
"Great Expectations," airing over the next two Sundays, certainly has its moments and the genius of Dickens wins out in the end, but not before taking it on the chin by some off-the-mark performances and lifeless direction.
Every high school student knows (or should know) the story of the boy Pip who is being raised by his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe when he's suddenly given hope for a better future by an invitation from the reclusive Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) to visit her and her adopted daughter, Estella, at her dust-shrouded, crumbling manse. He's elated when Miss H. says she's going to underwrite his future for seven years, until he learns she'll merely pay for him to be an apprentice to Joe and tells him not to visit her anymore.
But another chance to escape his impoverished life presents itself when the lawyer Jaggers (David Suchet) shows up to tell Pip (Douglas Booth) he will be turned into a gentleman in London and given a regular allowance by an anonymous benefactor until he reaches 21, at which time he'll inherit a fortune. Pip thinks the money is coming from Miss Havisham and that she means it to smooth out his rough edges so he'll be worthy of marrying Estella (Vanessa Kirby).
The more the rough edges are sanded off, the snobbier he becomes, not to mention ashamed of his background and the people who raised him as a boy. In the end, of course, he learns that he cannot escape his past, that the wise man puts his faith and trust in people who have his best interests at heart, no matter what their station.
The script, adapted by Sarah Phelps, is trim but adequate, and there are some fine performances by such stalwarts as Suchet, Ray Winstone as Magwitch, the escaped prisoner, and Shaun Dooley as Joe. Mark Addy ("Game of Thrones") plays Uncle Pumblechook convincingly without quite hitting that singularly Dickensian way of blending comedy and greed in a secondary character. And full-lipped Booth does what he can with Pip. More often than not, though, Booth seems half-asleep, but who could blame him?
And then there's Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham - one of the youngest actors ever to play the role: It's an intriguing and potentially credible approach to the story to have Havisham age as her house rots around her.
The problem is that Anderson, caked in white "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" makeup, manages to make Miss Havisham silly, and that's the last thing the character should be, because silly is neither scary nor sad. When Pip is first brought to Satis House and later lays eyes on the decay of the unattended wedding feast of years before, and when the ghost-like image of Miss Havisham descends from the second floor to greet him, he doesn't seem even slightly afraid or nervous. There's nothing scary about Miss Havisham, and, to a young boy used to a simpler life, there should be.
Anderson delivers her lines in an airy, high-pitched voice which, on the surface, isn't a bad acting choice, but the performance needs more than that: We need to see this woman as damaged. We need to feel the sense of betrayal and vengeance that motivates her. Anderson only begins to connect with the character later in the story, when Miss Havisham is bent with age and broken by her own manipulations of Pip and Estella. Yet, even then, Anderson is done in by Brian Kirk's detached direction. The character famously comes to a bad end in the novel, but here, that indelible moment seems to have as much import and drama as Miss Havisham making out the next day's shopping list.
Literally and figuratively, this is a largely colorless production. You'll see that especially in the early sections of the film. The characters' faces and clothing are as faded as the fog-enshrouded marshes near the family forge. Later, when an older Pip enters London society, there are spots of color here and there, but overall, the visual atonality of the production seems meant to reflect the oppressiveness of 19th-century England.
All well and good, but Kirk makes the performances and pacing colorless as well, so much so that the middle of the film bogs down in inertia that almost makes Dickens the one thing his greatest books never are: boring.
Only the action-packed melodramatic events toward the end of the story pull us back toward the emotional resonance of the source material, as Magwitch reappears in Pip's life, but must be secreted out of England before he is arrested and "dropped"- strung up on the gallows. The ending of the story is as problematic as ever. Dickens initially penned a finale more in keeping with the rest of the novel, but a second "happy" ending has endured since then. It's even less believable here, but at least it's faithful to the novel.
Dickens' works are great enough to survive most ill-considered decisions about their adaptation, and so it is with this. In treatments of works by other writers, that approach can enhance credibility, but it's too confining when applied to Dickens. Symbolism, comedy and melodrama all play significant roles in Dickens' greatest novels. Little is to be gained by flattening things out.
Great Expectations, , Part 1, airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, April 1; Part 2, Sunday, April 8, on PBS. Check local listings.