‘GREAT EXPECTATIONS’ (2011) – BBC’s Gothic and Beautiful Dickens Story about Loss and Love

April 24, 2012 20 Comments

Attached to this British period drama was either great anticipation or disinterest. Because such accolades came from people whose
opinions I may not always agree with, but do trust curiosity made me to step inside this latest adaptation. Great Expectations (2011)

Great Expectations (2011) Film Review

Young Pip only has one protector. Orphaned, the boy lives with his stern sister and her kind-hearted blacksmith husband, Joe (Shaun Dooley). Following an odd encounter with an escaped convict named Magwitch (Ray Winstone) on a cold Christmas day. The mysterious recluse, Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) wishes for a young boy to come once a week as a kind of playmate to her young impetuous adopted daughter.

Pip’s attendance of this request discovers a home shrouded in more than dust and shadows. But it’s to the young and beautiful Estella that Pip loses his young heart to. The teenage beauty is nearly as cold as her benefactor but the naïve Pip is drawn into their world. Wishing to create distance between her charge and Pip, Miss Havisham pays for his apprenticeship to train in the trade of blacksmith.  

Years pass and Pip (Douglas Booth) grows into a fine-looking man. Out of nowhere, a well-known London attorney named Jaggers (David Suchet) informs Pip that a mysterious benefactor has settled a fortune on him. There are stipulations: Including never inquiring who his benefactor is until he reaches his majority. With prospects, Pip leaves for London but Miss Havisham pulls him back, and towards Estella (Vanessa Kirby) who returns from finishing school in Paris.

‘GREAT EXPECTATIONS’ (2011) - BBC's Gothic and Beautiful Dickens Story about Loss and Love. Review of the feature film with an all-star cast. Text © Rissi JC

It’s hard to know where to begin with a production such as this. The opening frame – and beyond, of this miniseries is pure brilliance. It puts every single one of our senses on alert. The filming and set creates a dangerous, mysterious scene only intensified by the setting on the dark marsh land with characters whose purpose and intent we do not yet understand. Naturally if one is familiar with the book, you’ll recognize not only the players but who they will become. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, much of this will seem crazy, but the strange thing about Dickens is that his novels are so complex and mysterious no motivation is without intent.  

FILM REVIEW | Great Expectations (2012): A Star-Studded Dickens Drama  
‘GREAT EXPECTATIONS’ (2011) – BBC's Gothic and Beautiful Dickens Story about Loss and Love Click To Tweet
‘GREAT EXPECTATIONS’ (2011) - BBC's Gothic and Beautiful Dickens Story about Loss and Love. Review of the feature film with an all-star cast. Text © Rissi JC

Since I had seen two earlier versions of this film, by far, this one is the best of the lot. Although I’ve not read the novel, a 3-hour miniseries is probably cutting a lot of corners but the production is “complete” and authentic to its purpose. Pacing comes across “off” or rushed a time or two but there should be an allowance for this. One thing production did not skimp on was its casting. The acting is brilliant in this movie particularly from Gillian Anderson. She owns the role of Miss Havisham. The character is a ghostly shell of a woman whose disappointment rules her life manifested in misery. Her fragile passive-aggressive attitude is a prison of her own making, instead of moving on and “being happy” as Pip once tells her she could have been. Sometimes, when there is one domineering performance, everyone else pales in comparison, that is fortunately not the
case here. Everyone holds their own including newcomers Booth and Kirby.   

It’s hard to “like” any Dickens-esque story because of its themes. Great Expectations exposes how deeply flawed human nature can
be. It reflects the sorrows, regrets and tragedies that comprise life. Anyone who has experienced his works knows each are quirky at best, but innately depressing where pure evil lives within the story. This production does not have the same “bite” as prior movies. There aren’t the usual troubling shivers Dickens can sometimes cause. Fortunately, for the audience, despite its end being ambiguous, and almost as if it’s cut short, romantics will be happy. Combined with this romanticism, and breathtaking costuming, this film is a five-star stunner.  

Whatever you think of him or his style, know this; Great Expectations, whether different from the novel or not is distinctively Dickens. Make no mistake.  

(Disclosure: this post does contain affiliate links; if you buy anything through these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you to anyone who makes a purchase through these links. Read the disclosure page for details.)

You can find Great Expectations (2011) digitally on Amazon Video with a BritBox add on.

Content: The film would probably deserve a “soft” PG13-raing. Men are depicted as having been beaten with blood everywhere [twice], two others are strangled [one does die], and another is stabbed. One scene takes place at a “club” in which men can pick out a “lady of the evening” for a price [nothing graphic]; Pip is mocked for being a virgin. There are some tense moments and a woman is nearly murdered [off-screen]. Implications inform (bruising) that there’s abuse of a woman in her marriage; and another woman commits suicide by lighting herself on fire.

About Rissi JC

amateur photog. #bookblogger. downton abbey. inspys. internet-photo-shy. writer. the aspiration is to someday write professionally. a girl can dream, right?

Rissi JC

amateur photog. #bookblogger. downton abbey. inspys. internet-photo-shy. writer. the aspiration is to someday write professionally. a girl can dream, right?

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  • Lianne April 24, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Great review, I'm glad to hear that this adaptation of the novel was enjoyable! I've been hesitant to check it out as I didn't really enjoy the novel (I guess I will re-read it at some point, just not anytime soon). Will try to check this out at some point =)

  • Natalie April 24, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Awesome review Rissi! Having read the book, I thought they did a great job with this adaptation for it, especially in regards to the whole flow and timing of it. Having said that though, this isn't one of my favorite Dickens story though… movie or book. And I agree, Anderson was "brilliant" as Miss Havisham.

  • Charity April 24, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    I'm so glad you liked it! I thought it was brilliant. Yes, it left out some characters from the book, and no, it wasn't perfect — but it engaged my emotions much more than previous adaptations of this particular story, in part thanks to Gillian's exquisitely haunting performance. I LOVE HER in this part. She's so gorgeous and twisted and utterly pathetic that you can't hate her, no matter how much she may deserve it.

    Maybe it won't beat out Bleak House in my "Favorite Dickens Adaptation" list, but it comes darn close.

  • Rissi April 24, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    Lianne – thanks! So was I. It was really exciting to finally see this version, and it is definitely the most memorable. Because of the cast, I still have a "special" place for the 90's Masterpiece adaptation but… yeah, there is no denying this is the best. (Estella was still so darn "cold" at the end by Justine Waddell's portrayal.)

    Hope you enjoy it if / when you see this one, Li!

    Natalie – thank you. (I like it when the movie makes it easy for me to organize these thoughts into a review – those are always best. =D)

    Really? That is great to know. Some people didn't think this was all that faithful to the book but then… I wouldn't have an opinion either way. It is just the best of the three I've now seen. Yeah, it isn't my favorite story by Dickens either but it is still good. Totally Dickens!

    Gillian Anderson was just grand! This is one of her best performances – ever.

    Charity – me, too! I had so anticipated seeing it. A second viewing will probably make it even more brilliant.

    Anderson was just one of the things that "made" this series – she was unforgettable. Truly memorable.

    I still think Bleak House is my favorite Dickens film. So far…

  • AnnaKate April 24, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    I have been wanting to see this very badly– my family and I are sort of Dickensphiles, haha. =) We can't wait to dig into this. We saw just a hint of it on TV the other day and Gillian Anderson was unrecognizable! I really enjoyed her in "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations" is a favorite Dickens, so there is much anticipation here. =)

    Thanks for the review; it only made me more excited!

  • Renee (SteelerGirl83) April 24, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    I've never read this book either so you are not alone! This was actually my first time seeing a film/tv adaptation and I have to agree that it was very good. I loved Gillian but she's always amazing and Estella was gorgeous and I've never seen or heard of the actress who played her so it was nice to see a fresh face along with Booth. This was definitely one of the better Masterpiece productions IMO.

    Nice review as always!

    XOXO~ Renee C.

  • Rissi April 25, 2012 at 3:13 AM

    AnnaKate – me, too! I was really anxious to see this one, and wound up having to wait a week after getting the DVD in the mail because my family was too busy and had other movies to watch first when it arrived! Now, I've finally seen it, it was worth the wait. =)

    Bleak House is awesome – I just love it. I think the two very different roles shows what a phenomenal actress Gillian truly is.


    Renee – yeah… there is just something about these classics (the books) that gets me every time I think I am going to actually get through one. (I did finally get through S&S but despite have started The Count of Monte Cristo, I've never gotten through it!)

    Wasn't this memorable? A second viewing is going to make me like it all the more I think. It was mysterious and a look at human nature most of us probably don''t want to see. Just wonderful. Gillian is always amazing, and I liked seeing two new faces also. It will be fun to look out for them in other upcoming BBC dramas – or we can hope for it!

    Thanks, Renee – I am really glad you shared your thoughts. =)

  • birdienl April 25, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    Very interesting review of this production! I've seen it around Christmas, when it was first broadcast at the BBC. I don't know yet whether I like this version or the 1999 version better. I probably should do a rewatch of both (but oh, so much to do, so little time). My hestitation might have something to do with the role of Pip being played by my beloved Ioan Gruffudd in the 1999 version ;-)

    I absolutely don't think you're the only one who finds Dicken's language difficult. I do read one or two Dickens novels a year, but they take me quite long to finish and although I enjoy them, it's 'heavy' reading, so to say. I did enjoy Great Expectations, though David Copperfield is so far my favourite novel.

    Dickens does indeed show very effectively how deeply flawed humans can be. I'm curious what you think of the new Edwin Drood adaptation if you've seen it. I think this aspect of Dickens was very strong in that adaptation.

  • Jemimah C. April 25, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    Oh, I'm glad to see a review of this from you! I love Dickens works, and Great Expectations has recently become a favorite book of mine. It's such a wonderful book by a brilliant author (I agree!). I used to think the story of Great Expectations was downright queer and crazy, but as I read it again, I realized it had many great qualities.

    And while I love the book, I haven't seen the newest mini-series yet. But naturally, I am dying to do so!

  • Rissi April 25, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    Birdienl – I definitely prefer this version. The '99 Masterpiece adaptation will always hold a "special place" because I love the cast but other than that…

    I've not even attempted to read a Dickens yet but I've paged through novels and read a couple of other "classic" literature. The dialect is just so… different than today's language. The reading is indeed very "heavy." So not my scene. ;D

    I've not seen "Edwin" yet but will be posting about it ASAP – likely in the next couple of weeks! Cannot wait! It is said to be "creepy," but then, I think most of Dickens could be categorized that way… in certain distinctions.

    Jemimah – thanks! I loved getting to write a review of this. =)

    Generally speaking, I think Dickens works are quirky. He was just so brilliant though – my dad even likes the films. After watching this one, he was like, "everything is so complex." And, that is very true – there is a reason for everything and rarely (if ever) did Dickens bring in a character that wasn't going to have a greater purpose.

    I've be curious to know how you think this compared with the novel – I've heard both arguments. Some think it is way different and others think this was well adapted.

    I hope you get to see it soon, and enjoy it!

  • The Fashion Scan April 25, 2012 at 6:19 PM

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  • jennifer blair April 25, 2012 at 9:45 PM

    I am so watching this now!!!

  • Rissi April 26, 2012 at 12:50 AM

    Fashion Scan – aw! Thanks so much for your sweet words. I really appreciate them. Stop in again. =)

    Off to check out your blog. =)

    Jennifer – do! It is a lovely (if not slightly) quirky mini-series. Totally Dickens.


  • Lauren S. April 26, 2012 at 2:08 AM

    Another Great Expectations adaption! I think I've seen 2… or 3… I don't remember now.

    I do love the story. I think Pip is one of Dickens' most realistic characters (although the opening scenes have always scared me – with Magwitch in the graveyard.)

    Nice review. I'll have to check this one out. :)

  • Rissi April 26, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Yes, indeed it is, Lauren. =) Gosh! Sometimes, I wish that film-makers would re-make Martin Chuzzlewit or some of the other worthy period films. Ah! Well… that is life.

    I've seen two prior versions and this is the best of the lot IMO. Hmmm… you may have a point about Pip, I've never thought of his character that way. David Copperfield is probably a fairly "realistic" character – in part because his story is the closest to Dickens.

    Enjoy if you see this one, Lauren!

  • Gwendolyn Gage May 1, 2012 at 6:37 PM

    I didn't rush out to see this movie when it first came out because I didn't really like the novel, but you're changing my mind. :-) Another added to my netflix queue!

  • Rissi May 2, 2012 at 12:21 AM

    I've not read the novel, Gwen but I know I'd have a difficult time getting through it! That is FOR sure.

    The movie is… quirky, like all of Dickens pieces but we get to see some truly great acting and some pretty costumes. I think IMO, this one will grow on me with subsequent viewings so it will be interesting to see how that pans out. =)

  • Jo May 3, 2012 at 6:46 PM

    I'm reading this book right now, and hope to watch the movie after finishing it. new follower!


  • Rissi May 4, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    Really? That is cool. I've not been able to convince myself to read any Dickens but I love these film/miniseries adaptations. This one is by far the best of the lot. (Of Great Expectations.) I hope you enjoy, Jo.

    Hi, Jo! It is lovely to "meet" you. I am so glad you stopped in and introduced yourself – please stop in again… and often. =)

    Off to check out your blog.

  • […] British talent that crop up. Everyone from Tuppance Middleton (The Lady Vanishes) to Douglas Booth (Great Expectations) appear and of course, we see Maria Doyle Kennedy again who is well-known for playing Katherine in […]

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