GREAT EXPECTATIONS (2011) – Blu-ray review

Charles Dickens was to Victorian England what Mark Twain was to America—a writer-celebrity whose work was widely read. People may know him primarily for “A Christmas Carol,” but his novels—Bleak House, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, The Pickwick Papers, and Little Dorrit—should also ring a bell.

“If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas, when can you beat him?”

Every Dickens title has been made into a film or TV movie/series multiple times, but curiously this 2011 UK TV mini-series of “Great Expectations” is the first since a contemporized version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow appeared in 1998. Even more curious, another version of “Great Expectations” starring Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter is now in post-production. Maybe we’re in the midst of a revival.

This Masterpiece Theater production certainly brings “Great Expectations” to life, with dramatic cinematography of the English lowlands and ramped up violence involving English lowlifes that might be strong enough to keep teachers from showing it in the classroom.

“Great Expectations” is directed by Brian Kirk (“Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire”) at a pace that splits the difference between the clichéd slow-moving Masterpiece narratives and a film aimed at popular audiences with less patience. And that’s a nice fit for a period film like this that satirizes English society while straddling two worlds—the Gothic and the romantic.

“It is a ghost of a wedding cake, and I am a ghost of a bride.”

In Dickens’ tale, young Pip, an orphan, is taken in by his sister (Claire Rushbrook) and her husband, Joe (Shaun Dooley), a blacksmith who plies his trade on the edge of the marshes far from the world of London’s gentlemen and ladies. One day Pip is walking along a pier when he’s grabbed by an escaped convict (Ray Winstone as Magwitch) who threatens to kill him if he doesn’t return with a file so he can remove his shackles. So begins the journey of a boy who thinks he wants to become a smithy but soon finds himself in training to be a young man of “great expectations”—which is to say, a gentleman of the leisure class.

Told by her Uncle Pumblechook (Mark Addy) that “Miss Havisham wants a boy, and you have one,” Pip’s sister sends him to a decrepit mansion filled with cobwebs and decay. Miss Havisham, a jilted bride who still wears her wedding dress and hasn’t touched the wedding buffet for a good 30 years, is superbly played by Gillian Anderson. It’s a tough role, trying to embody elements of the Gothic while also playing someone who’s obviously mentally disturbed. How else to describe someone who adopts an orphaned girl (Vanessa Kirby as Estella) just so she can train her to be cold-hearted and hurt men, and to summon Pip as her first “victim”?

“Do you think beauty is a destroyer of men, Pip?”

“Great Expectations” follows Pip as he moves to London after he’s sponsored by an anonymous benefactor and gets monthly checks from his guardian, the same lawyer Jaggers (David Suchet) who represents Miss Havisham’s estate. In London he meets and bonds with Herbert Pocket (Harry Lloyd, Dickens’ great-great-great-grandson), finds a new nemesis in Bentley Drummle (Tom Burke) and falls in love. But there’s a strange shadowy presence following him—a presence every bit as strong as Pip’s lowly past. Can he pass for an upper-crust man of great expectations, or will that past come back to haunt him?

“Do not think, Pip. It never leads to anywhere edifying.”

Except perhaps in this thoughtful adaptation, which creates a mood and atmosphere that seems as right as the pacing. But a word about the violence:  A man is choked to the point of near death, men are killed, blood is splattered, and one of the characters is graphically burned to death. Masterpiece Theatre has certainly evolved over the years. It’s kept up with the expectations of audiences, and while “Great Expectations” is set in Victorian England, the cinematography and level of violence make it seem quite contemporary . . . and yes, still relevant.

“Great Expectations” is presented in 16×9 widescreen (1.78:1, “enhanced”) in 1080i, not 1080p HD. But the picture looks very good. A few scenes in the marshes at night have more grain, but for the most part the detail holds, even in shadows, and while the look and facial tones change to match the lighting or the mood, it always seems appropriate. I saw no artifacts as a result of the transfer.

The audio is a simple Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 with subtitles in English SDH. It’s mostly dialogue and music, though, and so the film doesn’t suffer as a result. Our attention is mostly on the video presentation, which is very strong. Subtitles are in English SDH.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom line:
If you’re a fan of Dickens or period dramas, this Masterpiece Classic adaptation of “Great Expectations” is worth your time. The performances are solid, the mood and pacing are perfect, the cinematography is lovely, and there’s enough suspense and violence to satisfy modern audiences.