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Great Expectations (BBC 2011) - Final episode review

Great Expectations

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

AFTER an impressive opening chapter, Sarah Phelps’ ‘bold’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations drew to a similarly brilliant close to complete a memorable mini-series for the BBC.

Though not entirely perfect, the final instalment was nonetheless filled with enough sadness, tragedy, death, betrayal and redemption to do the complex source material justice.

Phelps did occasionally seem to have trouble tying all the various loose ends together and several plot strands felt rushed – most notably, the resolution of the marriage of Estella (Vanessa Kirby) to Tom Burke’s ghastly Bentley Drummle (which was short-lived but defined by abuse until it came to an end at a horse’s hooves).

Indeed, Estella’s story seemed to play distinct second fiddle to Pip’s, which diminished the impact of the love story between them somewhat, as well as Estella’s own journey towards fulfilment and unconditional love.

Similarly, the impact of Pip’s surrogate father Joe (Shaun Dooley) was lessened, particularly during the final act. But Dooley still managed to remain an affecting presence and the final scene between him and his surrogate son was suitably poignant.

Where this Great Expectations excelled (aside from visually) was in the depictions of Miss Havisham (played to extremely haunted effect by Gillian Anderson) and Magwitch (a tormented, broken but potentially brutal Ray Winstone) – both of whom provided a masterclass in acting.

Anderson, especially, ensured that while wickedly scheming, and strangely seductive, Miss Havisham was a tragic figure… one whose actions stemmed from extreme heartbreak (however misguided) and whose final act of kindness (by providing Pip with the means to pay some of his debt) offered a fitting farewell before she went up in flames. Her final scene, while consumed by fire, was chilling and poignant (and deeply memorable).

Winstone, too, proved to be a kindly brute… a prisoner whose actions were born from deep personal tragedy and who saw Pip as his own chance for personal salvation. The scenes between Winstone and Douglas Booth (as Pip) were often quite moving.

Notable, too, were the likes of David Suchet, as the enigmatic Mr Jaggers, and Harry Lloyd, as the charismatic Herbert Pocket, even though – once more – their roles were either expanded or reduced according to the needs of Phelps’ interpretation.

But, crucially, having gripped during its first two hours, Great Expectations was able to deliver a strong conclusion that tinkered with Dickens’ source text without losing any of its impact.

In doing so, it ensured that this particular adaptation maintained a strong sense of its own identity (a classic one at that) while doubtless sending many an impressed viewer back to the book itself. And therein lies the real measure of any adaptation.

Read our verdict on the first episode