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Wednesday, May 31st, 2023  

Great Expectations

Hulu, March 26, 2023

Mar 25, 2023 Photography by Miya Mizuno/FX Web Exclusive
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Changing times necessitate an update on one of Charles Dickens’ best loved novels, Great Expectations, the classic tale of class and social mobility in Victorian England during the last great push of the British Empire. In this FX and BBC co-produced six-part adaptation, we follow the fate of orphan, Pip (Fionn Whitehead) who while learning to be a gentleman under the tutelage of the cruel Miss Haversham (the ever brilliant Olivia Colman), predictably falls in love with her beautiful but cold charge, Estella (Shalom Brune Franklin).

In the first episode we are introduced to young Pip (Tom Sweet), a schoolboy who recites Shakespeare and longs for a better standing than the blacksmith’s forge that he works in. It is Christmas Eve and he is forbidden by his stern older sister, Sara (Hayley Squires) to visit their parents’ graves as the canons have fired signaling that a convict has escaped. They reside in the Kent marshes, an area on the outskirts of the River Thames that flows to the open sea. There on the riverbanks rest hulks—decommissioned warships now stripped off their sails—floating prisons where convicts bound for the penal colony of Australia are temporarily housed .

Headstrong Pip insists on heading out. Sara threatens to beat him and is held back by her kind but lowly blacksmith husband Joe (Killing Eve’s Owen McDonnell). After they fall asleep, Pip sneaks out and comes across Magwitch (Johnny Harris), and later his mortal enemy Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle). Despite Pip’s fear, he steals his sister’s Christmas pie, some brandy and Joe’s tools in order to help Magwitch. This act of kindness will forever bind them for better or worse.

In Episode 2, we witness the cruelty of Miss Haversham, a woman who hasn’t seen the sun in a decade, after she was jilted at the altar. Bitter and addicted to opium, she wanders around her large but empty mansion in a ghostly wedding dress. Ms Havisham makes a request for the smartest boy in the village–which turns out to be Pip–to be a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella. Though young, Estella is already heartless, poisoned by Haversham’s malice, and vengeful desire. She uses her beauty to crush the hearts of men, Pip being one of them. Naively, Pip assures Miss Haversham that he has no intention to fall in love with the proud Estella. Haversham plays him like a moth to a spider web.

Together, they teach Pip the mores and ways of polite society with mean-spiritedness and condescension. Estella mocks his clothes and says he “smells like the stables,” before they show him how and what clothes to wear. They make fun of his awkwardness before giving him the finer points of how a gentleman enters a room. And finally, they provide him with a prostitute on his 18th birthday and impart to him the knowledge that “those below are for using,” before refusing to let him return when he admits that he has indeed fallen in love with Estella.

Meanwhile at the Old Bailey, the British courts where trials are held in London, we’re introduced to Jaggers (Ashley Thomas) a Queen’s counsel lawyer tasked with the dirty job of keeping the hands of gentlemen clean and society seemingly respectable. He takes Pip in to continue his education, revealing that a benefactor has bequeath to him a large sum of money, who Pip mistakenly believes is Miss Haversham.

Dickens’ denouement in the book is satisfying as all the loose ends in this coming-of-age, rags-to-riches story are tied up. When Estella and Pip meet late in life, the awful BentleyTramnell that she had chosen to marry, had spent much of the fortune that Havisham left her and was long dead. Pip was now wealthy and had fulfilled his ambitions of travel and business but had not married. Wiser now, the pair were both free to be together, though Dickens stops at writing a happily-ever-after ending with a cheesy wedding.

In this updated version, issues of race and imperialism have been brought to the fore. For example, the major plot point that the convicts were bound for Australia and mention of the transatlantic slave trade and a character’s escape from the Deep South of America. These themes are made more apparent accordingly as the most pertinent talking points in current culture.

Pip’s character serves as the moral center of the narrative so when a ship’s master reveals that they are bound for Africa where they will pick up a cargo of enslaved men and offers Pip a princely sum to forge extra shackles from Joe’s shop, Pip refuses. He may be poor but he is still principled. However, things will soon change as he returns to sell Miss Haversham’s opium to the same ship master so he can buy new clothes. Miss Haversham’s fortune, in turn, was built on the slave trade, opium and gunpowder for war.

Pip’s time in London corrupts him further and he winds up back in Gravesend and realizes he was focused on the wrong things. If being a gentleman meant lying to himself, committing all manner of depraved deeds and ultimately seeing himself above his own country folk kin, then being a “gentleman” is not truly what he desires. Instead, he chooses to improve his lot by marrying his long suffering but always giving, childhood sweetheart, the school teacher, Biddy (Laurie Ogden). In this way, screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Dirty Pretty Things) rewrites the book’s ending and the fate of the two main characters.

Being a BBC co-production, the set design is impeccable and the cast is exceptional. Colman, Brune Franklin, Thomas and Rudi Dharmalingam who plays Jagger’s assistant Wemmick are a particular joy to behold on the small screen. Estella is painted as an impervious character who can be difficult to like but Brune Franklin plays her with a depth that brings to full view her vulnerabilities as faults of circumstance and upbringing. Thomas gives a commanding performance as the cutthroat lawyer in possession of a good side that can’t ever be on display.

As has been the trend for diversity in casting, some of the key roles — Estella, Jaggers, Wemmick have gone to actors of color. Sometimes called color-blind casting, this allows for more representation but it can also raise questions of historical inaccuracies. Shonda Rhimes has advocated for a color conscious casting, when traditional roles are assigned non-traditionally to non-whites to make a particular point, as in her Netflix hit, Bridgerton, which engages in the thought experiment: what would the Regency court look like if a Black queen, the real-life consort Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III was in charge of London society?

Color conscious casting considers race rather than being blind to it. When done right, it brims with possibility. It can charge a tired narrative with added dimensions and bring an old text up to date. The path taken here is unclear. But when Estella finally hands Pip Miss Haversham’s wedding ring and asks him to finish his proposal to her, he replies, rather smugly “You are immune to love.” He then suggests that she should “Be with her equal, a fellow exile of the human race,” which in this case is Jaggers! Following this line of thought and given the skin color of both actors, it only reinforces less progressive views of interracial unions, and serves to reinstate the status quo of race and class. True representation is tricky and demands much self-interrogation on the part of screenwriters and viewers. Either way, as a thought experiment Great Expectations is certainly worth the pursuit. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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