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Great Expectations (BBC 2011) - First episode review

Great Expectations

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

SARAH Phelps’ ‘bold’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is a rich visual treat and, thus far, an emotionally absorbing piece of drama.

Based on the first episode (which aired on December 27, 2011), Dickens’ source text has been transformed into a visually striking and often harsh tale that is buoyed by a top notch cast.

The story is familiar to many despite some artistic variations and omissions. It follows the fortunes of a young orphan named Pip (played for the most part in this first instalment by young Oscar Kennedy) and how he attempts to escape a restrictive life on the Kent marshes.

This first hour concentrated almost solely on his childhood years. It opened with some terrifically moody shots of the marshes as Pip meets escaped prisoner Magwitch (a horrific Ray Winstone) while visiting the grave of his dead parents, before then introducing the characters who will play a key role in what comes next – from the despicable Mrs Joe (Claire Rushbrook) to the ghostly Miss Havisham (an ethereal Gillian Anderson) and her daughter Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small) right through to the kindly blacksmith Joe (Shaun Dooley), his surrogate father.

Throughout, Phelps’ screenplay contained a heightened sense of atmosphere, of impending change and constant danger. It also kind of exists in a quasi-supernatural state, as underlined by the pale white presence of Miss Havisham, or the early dark shadowy presence of Magwitch.

It makes for hypnotic viewing that comes to life whenever the actors speak their lines, with Winstone, Anderson, David Suchet, Dooley and Kennedy, especially, on fine form.

Anderson, in particular, makes the role of Miss Havisham her own, appearing as a much younger and possibly even seductive version of previous adaptations… as dangerous as she is tragic.

While Dooley brings a quiet sense of frustration to the role of Joe, as much a result of his own entrapment as a nagging sense that Pip would be happier elsewhere. The scenes between him and Kennedy were particularly affecting and leant the episode its heart.

Kennedy, too, deserves maximum praise for avoiding the pitfalls of many a child actor – he seems natural whether becoming spellbound by Miss Havisham, dishing out some physical punishment to a precocious young rival, tapping into his heart and overcoming his fear of Magwitch or bonding with his surrogate dad.

Indeed, so fine is Kennedy’s groundwork that older pip, Douglas Booth, has his work cut out living up to the standards set by his young charge and early evidence suggests he may have trouble.

That said, there is a great sense of expectation now surrounding the final two instalments as Pip comes of age and finds inevitable trouble in London. It should continue to provide bold, spellbinding viewing.

And for that, you have to tip your hat to the BBC once again!

Read our verdict on the final episode