Great Expectations on BBC One review: even Olivia Colman can’t save this irredeemably awful series
The thing about Dickens is that he isn’t short on characters, plot, dramatic tension or human interest. You may find the characters overblown – though that says more about you than about them – or the plots too convoluted or the dramatic tension too melodramatic or the sentimentality too overdone; what you can’t say is that he needs a bit more of these things.
But to say as much is to reckon without Steven Knight, who has written the screenplay for the BBC’s new take on Great Expectations. And he appears to have taken one look at this remarkable account of the way snobbishness can corrupt character, and decided that it’s the merest starting point, a springboard, for his own exploration of the repulsive side of human nature.
It’s not so much a dramatisation of Great Expectation, as a hollowing out of it in order to accommodate a very different story and almost unrecognisable characters. And this version is so wholly and painfully different from the original as to warrant a warning to the viewer. Trouble is, lots of the audience nowadays will be unfamiliar with the book, and may confuse the two.
Where Dickens is suggestive, Knight is explicit; where Dickens is humorous – and there are richly comic elements in it – Knight is monotonously strident; where Dickens is restrained, Knight will insist on rubbing our noses in what he wants us to think.
Take two examples. One of the funniest and most painful episodes in Pip’s becoming a gentleman is when he goes to a tailors to be kitted out in a gentleman’s suit. He walks out self-consciously in his finery, only to be greeted by the reprobate apprentice, Trabb’s boy, who “excited loathing in every respectable mind” and who is visibly prostrated by Pip’s new dignity. This uproarious character is nowhere to be seen in this version, presumably because he is too large, comic and uncomfortable to be accommodated by a script which is flat-footed about class. Here Pip is simply congratulated by a passer by on how smart he is.
Another acutely uncomfortable episode is where his brother in law Joe Gargery visits Pip in his new lodgings; it is the nightmare for the upwardly mobile, this reminder of their past. But where Dickens describes the episode almost unbearably through Pip’s chilly politeness in the face of Joe’s humble joviality – “What larks, Pip, what larks!” – here, Pip tells him outright, “I don’t want any of my acquaintance to see you”. Oof.
And that’s before we get to the hideous perversion of character. Mrs Joe is bad enough plain without making her fancy; when she goes on the rampage, men take cover. Here she exorcises her demons for profit by giving Uncle Pumblechook – poor Matt Berry - a good thrashing on his bare bum in the upstairs bedroom. Pumblechook is a brilliant comic invention; the incarnation of preposterous pomposity – here, he’s just a vulgar pervert. And there’s so much more of this.
I can’t think of an adaptation I’ve hated more, unless it be the last BBC adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which, come to think of it, is also the work of Stephen Knight. And just what was it about the critical reception of that which made the Corporation’s drama department think he was just the man to let loose on Great Expectations?
It would be wrong to say that there’s nothing going for it. The camera is especially good on misty marsh scenes and creepy atmospheric detail. And there’s Olivia Colman, who is in her element as Miss Havisham. You can see why she couldn’t resist the part, however far it departs from Dickens. She is brilliantly unsettling as the smiling manipulator of Pip – a creditable performance by Fionn Whitehead – but is it necessary to make this memorable character the 19th century version of a crackhead… an opium addict?
The note to the press preview in the final episode asks the reviewer not to reveal in advance the respects in which the plot departs from the novel. But if you take my advice you won’t get that far.
Great Expecations airs on BBC One on March 26