Victoriana Drenched in Red Bull, in FX’s “Great Expectations”
Dickens gets debauched by sex, drugs, and gunfire in a new adaptation of “Great Expectations,” streaming on Hulu. The six-part FX/BBC miniseries is a slice of Victoriana soaked in Red Bull which avows, too brashly at times, that it is no staid PBS affair. The British writer Steven Knight (the creator of “Peaky Blinders,” who also adapted “A Christmas Carol” for television, in 2019) casts gothic and colonial shadows over the beloved bildungsroman, which follows Pip, an orphan whose aspirations to become a gentleman are bankrolled by a mysterious benefactor. In Knight’s retelling, Pip learns that few fortunes are made without preying on the misfortune of others. Traditionalists will balk at the show’s many departures from the novel—and, likely, at its blue-lit, try-hard edginess—but this energetic remix doesn’t betray the spirit of the original. Dickens’s heavy social conscience, character-driven scenes, and preposterous plotting are all deftly distilled.
Not unlike Adam and Eve becoming aware of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, the book’s Pip comes to learn shame, striving to improve his station after being humiliated for his modest background. Knight’s Pip (who is played by Tom Sweet as a young teen) owes as much to Disney as he does to Dickens. A born dreamer, he is raised by his sister (Hayley Squires), who is as wicked as any fairy-tale stepmother, and her gentle blacksmith husband, Joe (Owen McDonnell). Pip is reputed to be the smartest boy in town; he recites Shakespeare to himself during the day and stays awake late into the night, watching the ships on the Thames embark for every corner of the Empire. He intends to set sail himself in just a few years, fancying a fortune in the ivory business. Of the creatures that must be sacrificed for their teeth and tusks, he seems not to spare a thought. The world expands before the boys and men of this era, and their moral imaginations can scarcely keep up.
Still, there’s plenty of untamed terrain just beyond Pip’s village. Hiding among the marshes and the mist—which the pilot’s director, Brady Hood, imbues with an eerie otherworldliness—are two escapees from a prison ship: Magwitch (Johnny Harris) and Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle), mortal enemies whose convoluted history will eventually be revealed. Starving and still shackled, Magwitch sneaks up on Pip and threatens the boy into fetching him some bread and a file—an act that will prove fateful.
Shortly thereafter, Pip is summoned to the home of Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman), who is interested in him for his intellect. (As his uncle Pumblechook, played by Matt Berry, says, Pip is “an orchid growing wild in the filth of a stable.”) Onscreen, as on the page, Miss Havisham is a living ghost: years after being jilted at the altar, she parades around her artfully derelict mansion in a soiled wedding dress, ranting about love’s inconstancy. In the book, Dickens doesn’t dwell on the origin of her family’s riches (though it is implied to be based on their land holdings), whereas Knight has pointedly made the source of her generational wealth the opium and slave trades.
Under Miss Havisham’s supervision, Pip is to provide company to her adopted daughter, Estella (Chloe Lea), who, in a later century, would have some doozies to tell on a therapist’s couch. Though instinctively icy to Pip, Estella is happy to indulge his hopes of one day joining her caste. “A gentleman only has to observe good manners with those who are members of his own class,” she informs him. “Those below are for using.” Pip’s ambition blinds him to the obvious inference: he, too, is being used.
The “great expectations” of the title refer to Pip’s desires, which Miss Havisham initially feeds, planning to destroy them as he grows older. (Her character is an extravagantly musty addition to Colman’s bestiary of regal ogresses; she’s both monstrous and tragically human, wrecked by self-pity and her own wealth, which allows her to live forever in a single moment of heartbreak.) Despite their strained mother-daughter relationship, Miss Havisham and Estella (played as a young woman by Shalom Brune-Franklin) are united in their belief that Pip’s social climbing cannot be achieved without a debasement of his soul. A gentleman pursues pleasures “without concern for issues of morality,” they tell a newly adult Pip (Fionn Whitehead) on his eighteenth birthday. (Their gift to him is a tumble with a cheerful prostitute.) All the while, Miss Havisham encourages Pip to fall in love with Estella, scheming to deny their union as her revenge upon the male species.
The miniseries’ early episodes are propelled forward by a tension: between Pip’s yearning to escape the stagnancy of his sleepy village and the mounting signs that the elaborate niceties of the upper class that he finds so enchanting also deflect from an exploitative brutality. Pip is not totally without compunction; he recoils when a merchant, admiring the manacles that Joe has forged for prisoners, attempts to commission a large number of chains for “African cargo.” But he’s not too virtuous to take up Miss Havisham’s suggestion that he sell some of her opium to purchase finer attire. Soon, Pip is whisked away to London by a lawyer named Jaggers (a charismatically foreboding, vampirically costumed Ashley Thomas, his face covered in scars), who has been hired by Pip’s anonymous benefactor to assist the young man’s social mobility. Jaggers only knows one way up. “I will teach you,” he tells Pip, “first to be a rat, then a snake, then a vulture. Then, with blood dripping from your beak, I’ll teach you how to be a gentleman.” (The dialogue doesn’t sound much like Dickens, but its vivid pulpiness adds to the show’s propulsive pacing.)
After Miss Havisham, Jaggers—who enjoys a larger role in the show than he does in the book—is the most compelling character to watch; he alternately grimaces at and delights in putting Pip through his paces. A cautionary tale of the kind of mercenary, unstoppable force Pip would need to become to survive in London—here, a den of dung and desperation—Jaggers gradually reveals a sympathy for his rapidly deteriorating protégé. When he suggests that Pip take up opium to get through his workdays, he could be protecting what’s salvageable of the young man’s soul—or hastening his decline so that he may flee the city faster.
London has seldom looked less inviting; hard and stark, it recalls a chessboard, where players vie ceaselessly for dominance. The nearly monochrome palette of the city scenes reflects the series’ Manichean world view of the corrupt rich and the largely kindhearted poor, most clearly embodied by Joe, as well as by Pip’s childhood friend Biddy (played as a girl by Bronte Carmichael and as a young woman by Laurie Ogden). The allusions to the sins of the British Empire that Knight introduces to Pip’s tale are provocative, reminding viewers where much of England’s wealth in this period came from, and at whose expense. But the potency of this critique is somewhat undercut by its application to a world, so unlike our own, with few gray areas. The adaptation is best enjoyed, then, as Pip’s action-packed, visually lush descent into, and eventual escape from, Hell.
Dickens wrote two endings to “Great Expectations.” Knight furnishes yet another. One could nitpick at it—certainly at its feminist revisionism, which irks far more than the series’ other anachronisms, such as its race-blind casting. The various updates for modern sensibilities lend unusual depth to Estella, but, as in the novel, Pip’s infatuation with her never rises above a plot necessity. The driving force behind his actions is a contrivance we accept, rather than feel. But it’s also to Knight’s credit that his populist, crepuscular vision coheres as well as it does. He satisfyingly ties together the story’s many threads, including those of the two convicts, and neatly resolves its central thematic conflicts, arguably better than the author did. This adaptation could be justifiably accused of not trusting contemporary viewers to care about Dickens’s world. But pulling him into ours has yielded its own B-movie thrills. ♦