Monday, March 20, 2023

Great Expectations Review & Roundtable Interview [Contributor: Jenn]

(Photo credit: FX)

It’s a new twist on a classic tale — a coming-of-age story about an orphaned young boy who desperately wants to elevate his station in life and is given the chance to do so by an eccentric woman with seeming ulterior motives. It’s a story many of us had to read when we were in high school English class: Great Expectations.

As a quick aside, I did have to read Great Expectations in high school and have not revisited it since. Back then, in a rare English class moment, our teacher let my class vote on whether they wanted to read A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. So while everyone else in the grade read the former, we read the latter option.

But whether you’ve read the book and/or seen the prior adaptations of the story, the new FX on Hulu take is one worth checking out. The miniseries kicks off on March 26, and I had the chance to watch the whole series as well as hear from its stars about the project at a press conference via Zoom. 

Below is a spoiler-free look into a world that Charles Dickens built over 150 years ago and one that remains relevant today.

(Photo credit: FX Networks)


This adaptation is led by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk; Emily) who brings charm and likability to the adult version of Pip while also reminding us through his performance of the dangers of acquiring power and position. We see Pip willing and able to abandon his morals for the sake of money and status as a gentleman. But there’s always a cost to his actions, and there’s always a line that Pip is unwilling to cross. That is what ultimately makes him the character we can root for and hope will discover the error of his ways before it’s too late.

Of Pip’s struggles, Whitehead said: “The thing that resonated a lot with me with Pip was this thing of … being 18 and feeling like you have to do everything on your own. And that you have to sort of forge this path and not ask for help, and not need help, and kind of repress a lot of stuff … like emotions and everything else.” He then added: “I think that is sort of a universally relatable thing for a lot of young men.”

Whitehead made some conscious choices about his character’s progression from the nephew of a blacksmith into a refined, London gentleman. “One thing I was quite keen on carrying through,” he said, “was just trying to make sure that his background came through [in] the whole piece. … For me, it felt more important to have the sort of refined gentleman speak and that way of behaving to be more of an act … that he is putting on when he’s in London. And almost trying to convince himself that he is.”

I personally think that the FX series benefits from featuring a young Pip (Tom Sweet) for the first two episodes so that we get the chance to see his evolution from child to young man and then an adult. Viewers will get the chance to see the internal and external struggles Pip has: what he wants but, most importantly, why he wants it at all. Without spoiling anything, I appreciated that the series took the time for Pip to come to terms with the person he’d become when he allowed power, status, and wealth to consume his motivations. If he was willing to get whatever he wanted, no matter the cost, who would he become? And why, even, did he want those things?

Pip’s journey is relatable, even today: we all want to be recognized and acknowledged for who we are. We all have felt shame and embarrassment at our situations. And most of us have longed for something that’s just outside of our grasp. But that’s when you realize what truly mattered to you. And what matters to Pip is love, family, and remaining true to who he is.

(Photo credit: FX Networks)


The women of Great Expectations are complicated to say the least. Estella, played by Shalom Brune-Franklin (Our Girl; Line of Duty), is a cold, but not unfeeling, young woman who almost immediately becomes the object of Pip’s affections. In talking about how she approached the role, Brune-Franklin noted: “We really explored the idea of: you’ve been raised a certain way and told and made to believe a certain thing. But then when you start to go out into the world … for yourself, you start to see that it’s not all these things that you’ve been told. … I think there’s always sort of an internal battle of what [Estella] is feeling versus what she’s thinking she has to feel, if that makes sense.” 

Estella is portrayed with this exact delicate balance in the miniseries — you can see why she speaks and approaches Pip, specifically, the way that she does because with Miss Havisham as her mother, all she’s ever known is coldness and bluntness toward men and love. This is an era where women didn’t have a say in who they married or who they became: everything was determined by status and class advantage. Brune-Franklin pointed out: “I think for Estella … pleasing Miss Havisham is her main goal. … I think that’s obviously a really toxic and horrible relationship that she’s having to navigate and grow up in.”

While there are times where Estella breaks down (because again, this is a woman with deep feelings just like everyone else), she is also doing all she can to survive a world that was not made for her — a fact even more evident in this adaptation because Estella is a woman of color.

“I think there were clues in the script,” Brune-Franklin said, “to show that [Estella] was somebody who was really hurting inside. She was somebody who was incredibly confused, had sort of been led down a very specific path, and wanted to escape from that. 

“I think Miss Havisham … taught her that the colder you are and the less vulnerable you are, you’ll always have the upper hand in life. And so I think that’s how she goes to through the world. But at the same time, it’s those moments when nobody else is around [that] she allows herself to feel exactly how she’s feeling inside — which is just very, very confused.”

(Photo credit: FX Networks)


Miss Havisham, played by Olivia Colman (The Favourite; Broadchurch), meanwhile, is someone who does immense damage to those in her life because of her own pain. Her backstory is laid out clearly in the first few episodes: she was left at the altar on her wedding day and has never taken off her dress or adornments. On the costuming for Miss Havisham, Colman noted that their costume designer said: “I don’t see her as dusty; I see her as rotting from the inside.” And the costume, which is incredible, really reflects that. 

Colman said that she feels sad for Miss Havisham as a woman who is unable to let go of the past and see how her anger, bitterness, and pain are hurting Estella and shaping her into a weapon to hurt others too: “I didn’t necessarily find much personally to connect with [in the character] other than I knew — I know — what it’s like to love, and I know the pain she must’ve felt when that fell apart. But I mean, to keep [holding onto] it for so long …” Colman laughed: “I mean, if she’d have a good therapist, maybe she’d have a very different life.”

But Colman was also quick to remind us that women in those days didn’t have options apart from marriage; that was the only chance to survive. “Back in those days of the full-on patriarchy … [women] were stuck. They couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything. [So to survive] it was going to have to be marriage and [Miss Havisham’s] only insight into marriage was horrendous.”

Colman concluded: “So poor Estella was sort of screwed from the offset really.”

(Photo credit: FX Networks)


This isn’t series creator Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) first stab at Dickens: in 2019, he created the miniseries A Christmas Carol, based on Dickens’ famous tale. It is also worth noting that Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott are credited as executive producers for this version of Great Expectations.

When asked about remaining true to the story while making it his own, Knight said that he set out “not to sort of deliberately … vandalize the thing in order to draw attention. Because that’s not the point. The story’s endured this long because it works. And the characters work.”

But, he also pointed out: “When Dickens was writing, he wasn’t able to write about certain things … because they were considered to be not the territory for fiction. And I wonder what Dickens would do if he had the liberty to write about the realities of what London was really like. I mean, he alludes to it in all his novels but he can never really actually go all the way into those dark places. So that’s what I tried to do.”

And this adaptation of Great Expectations goes dark, while taking some liberties (you’ll notice some cursing throughout the series that isn’t what you’d expect for a period piece!) with its source material. However, unlike shows that take liberties solely to shock their viewers, the changes made really enhance the storytelling. The settings become gritty, dark, claustrophobic at times. You’d be hard-pressed to find lots of hopeful sunlight in London scenes — and that’s sort of the point.

Jaggers, played by Ashley Thomas (Them: Covenant; Top Boy), echoed this about his interpretation of his character: “I think what Jaggers does is represent London.” He elaborated: “In the same way that London … and big cities, not just London, can be these cold places that people go to search and seek their dreams … you can still, in these big cities, meet people with kind hearts that love.”

Jaggers’ portrayal is so fascinating throughout this series as well. Externally calculating and ruthless, Jaggers does have a cold exterior typical of London. Pip is horrified by Jaggers’ frankness and decisions when the two first meet. But Jaggers does care — for Pip and others — and tries his best to set Pip on the right path.

(Photo credit: FX Networks)


In reflecting on the series, Knight noted: “I think that when you’re writing an adaptation, you have to walk a tightrope, and I think I’ve walked that tightrope in a way that does justice to the spirit of the story while at the same time reflecting, perhaps, the way things have changed since then.”

And to be honest, I fully agree. But to know how Great Expectations stacks up to other adaptations and to watch these incredible performances yourself, you’ll just have to check out the series when it begins streaming on FX on Hulu on March 26.