In the very first scene of Hulu’s Great Expectations, a distraught and disheveled Pip (Fionn Whitehead) ties one end of a rope to a bridge, tightens the other around his neck, and leaps. What happens next won’t be revealed until much later in the six-hour miniseries, but what’s clear right away is the message being sent: This isn’t Great Expectations as you remember it.
This is a Great Expectations that’s willing to get dirty, to push the envelope, to take ample liberties with the source material beloved (or at the very least, tolerated in school) by millions. There’s more sex, more violence, more drugs. But with too little in the way of humanity, insight or entertainment to offer alongside them, what could have been a daring spin on a classic is transformed instead into a dreary slog.
The Bottom Line
Grimmer and grittier, but to what end?
The bare bones of the story remain much the same as always, following the upwardly mobile journey of Pip (played by Tom Sweet as a boy), a young orphan growing up under the care of his much-older sister Sarah (Hayley Squires) and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe (Owen McDonnell). Pip gets his first taste of the good life in childhood, when he’s enlisted by the bitter, wealthy Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) as a sort of plaything for her adopted daughter (played as a girl by Chloe Lea and as a young woman by Shalom Brune-Franklin) — and then begins to climb the social ranks in earnest as a young man under the mentorship of Jaggers (Ashley Thompson), a cynical lawyer working on behalf of an anonymous benefactor. Along the way, the naïve kid gets a rude awakening about what it truly means to be a “gentleman” in such a cutthroat world.
Beyond that, writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) takes great liberties with his Hulu- and BBC-produced drama. Several major characters see their arcs radically altered, up to and including their final fates, while some minor characters have been expanded and others eliminated entirely. Collectively, the changes make Great Expectations feel less like an act of respectful translation than a wholesale reimagining, cobbled together from hazy memories of what happened in the novel, impassioned opinions about what should have happened in the novel, and modern ideas about what may been lurking between the lines this whole time. It’s exciting in theory, if not necessarily in practice.
Some of its choices, faithful and otherwise, do yield big rewards. Thompson makes the most of Jaggers’ upgraded role in the story, tearing into overwritten dialogue like “I will happily throw the boy to the wild beast of this city, who would consume his youth as they would a fresh oyster before throwing the empty shell back into the river from whence it came” as if they were bloody steaks. (The bemused response by Rudi Dharmalingam’s Wemmick, the assistant who’s been taking dictation — “Of course you don’t really want me to write that” — makes for one of Great Expectations‘ rare laugh lines.) Brady Hood, who directed the first four episode, amps up the drama with a chilly visual style that emphasizes darkness and light: the inky shadows of the city, the warm glow of Pip’s humble village, the cold rays filtering in through Miss Havisham’s dusty windows.
As in every take on the saga including the original, Miss Havisham emerges as its single most memorable character, leaving an indelible impression that far outweighs her actual involvement in the plot. Colman, whose commanding presence has served her well in multiple queenly roles, cuts a striking figure in the wedding dress that Miss Havisham has worn ever since she was jilted at the altar years ago, with so many pearls wrapped around her neck they seem on the verge of choking her to death. “Sick. Sick fantasy. Sick. Sick,” she hisses to herself as she forces Pip and Estella to play her cruel games, with a feral glee in her eyes that would not look out of place on Gollum.
Much of Great Expectations, however, seems to be reaching for edginess for its own sake. That game scene is intercut with one of Sarah engaging in some light BDSM with Mr. Pumblechook (Matt Berry), which I suppose the series’ creators would insist is intended as a warped echo of the sexual power dynamics playing out in Miss Havisham’s parlor. It plays more like yet another reminder that this isn’t a regular Dickens adaptation, it’s a cool Dickens adaptation. Elsewhere, the series tries to inject some excitement into the eternal enmity between criminals Magwitch (Johnny Harris) and Compeyson (Trystan Gavelle) with shocking bursts of violence. But gunshots and stab wounds can only do so much to make up for the fact that neither fully registers as a character until late in the season.
Then again, few of the leads really register as characters for most of the series either. Great Expectations is built around great appetites — for status, for money, for revenge, for love — and the great destruction they can leave in their wake. (In a through line that’s thoughtful but undercooked, the series connects the ruthless immorality of British gentlemen with Britain’s own tyrannical behavior as a colonialist power on the world stage.) But the characters motivated by them seem to be written as thematic statements first, and people second. It’s difficult to sympathize much with Pip’s burning desire for Estella, for instance, when we get maybe one spark of true connection between them and many, many more instances of Pip being reminded she’s out of his reach.
This Great Expectations may be unusual in its eagerness to go down darker paths than most Dickens adaptations would ever think to. Rather than find anything new in those pleasure gardens thick with opium smoke, though, it loses the very quality that made Great Expectations such a favorite to pore over again and again to begin with — its ability to connect.
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