Great Expectations review – Olivia Colman is mesmerisingly sinister

The Oscar winner is so good that the rest of this adaptation from the Peaky Blinders creator feels like filler. But do we really need yet another take on Dickens’ novel?

My goodness, is it that time already? The Great Expectations adaptation seems to come around quicker every decade, does it not? There have been between 12 and 17 versions for film and television (depending on where you draw the line between “adaptation of” and “inspired by”) since the inaugural 1917 silent film by Robert G Vignola, plus about a dozen for the stage. You would be forgiven for suggesting that Charles Dickens’s 1861 bestseller has delighted us long enough and that perhaps it is time for another author to get a look-in. (Or you could start by adapting a different Dickens. Hard Times might go down well. It has been 10 years since the last Nicholas Nickleby).

This year’s Great Expectations is the work of the Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and stars Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham. She appears only in the final few scenes of the opening episode, which was the only one available for review, but it is clear that Colman is her predictably excellent self; there is a risk she will reduce everything else to filler while viewers await her next mesmerising appearance.

Her Havisham has a creepier, more predatory, vibe than we are used to seeing. Is this a deliberate reflection of our times, when it seems sometimes that there are far more predators than a supposedly civilised society should be capable of sustaining? Is it that living in such a time makes it impossible not to read her as a proto-groomer? I don’t know. But it gives me something to think about while I wait for her to come back on screen.

The rest of it – so far at least – is standard, solid fare. We have good-hearted Joe Gargery (Owen McDonnell) fulfilled by life as a blacksmith and baffled that his young charge, Pip (Tom Sweet, to be replaced by Fionn Whitehead when Pip grows up), does not feel the same. The mixture of ambition and naivety that will shape his destiny is nicely drawn – edging towards stroppy modern teen, but always pulling back enough to keep it in timeless adolescent-angst territory.

Hayley Squires as Sara, Pip’s sister and Joe’s wife, brings out everything in Knight’s version of her character to give us a sense of the pressures and frustrations that have driven out the warmth of the woman, who is most often depicted as a mere harridan. It’s a fine performance.

We first see Magwitch (Johnny Harris) escaping from a prison ship on the marshes, along with the treacherous blackguard Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle), during a fire set by the latter. I don’t know if there was a codicil in Dickens’s will, enduring e’en after copyright expiry, that requires Magwitch to be played with a mouthful of spit, but just once I would like to try it the non-frothing way so that there is an outside chance of understanding what he is saying. This is not that time.

On we go. Pip happens across Magwitch and is terrorised into bringing him one of Joe’s tools, so he can unshackle himself, and a central part of the Gargerys’ Christmas dinner. (This always gets me. There was nothing less conspicuous than that whole pork pie to give him, Pip? Really? Dickens, you are a cheeky bugger of a storyteller and well you know it.)

Officious, awful Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry, in a part made for his unmistakeable cadences) persuades the Gargerys to let Pip become the hired companion to Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin, fabulously disaffected already), the niece of the old lady in that crumbling mansion over the way.

So, do we need another Great Expectations? In no way. Should we declare a moratorium on Dickens and start giving Anthony Trollope or George Gissing or Wilkie Collins more attention? Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift are even longer out of copyright. What about – hear me out – some ladies? Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Winifred Holtby? Let’s blow this whole thing out of the water and have Sarah Phelps go to town on The Tale of Genji!

In the meantime, there is Colman et al to enjoy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t harbour greater expectations than Great Expectations for the future.

Great Expectations aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer in the UK, and will screen on Foxtel in Australia with an airdate to be confirmed


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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