by ALICE BOLIN
dir. Brian Kirk
What must first be said about the BBC’s latest miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is that it looks good — it’s this sort of visual pleasure, the care taken toward both beauty and ugliness, that drives reviewers to use words like “sumptuous” or “glorious” or even “delicious.” The marshlands of the series’ beginning are perfect in their lonely beauty, washed out by layers of fog. The director, Brian Kirk, seems to take a painter’s pleasure in the scenery, and we are often treated to shots of the entire misty landscape, including a huge sheet of sky.
It must further be said that gorgeousness here is not gratuitous. Dickens is English literature’s supreme evocateur, and setting dictates mood, or maybe vice versa. Spark Notes informs me that the environment of the marsh connotes ambiguity and alienation, and that seems about right. This is, after all, where our urchin-hero Pip meets and helps Magwitch, the escaped criminal who is to become his mysterious benefactor. But in terms of triggering feeling, the setting de resistance of Great Expectations is Miss Havisham’s Satis House, with its stopped clocks, its cobwebs, its rotting wedding cake. The house has attempted to resist time and is instead overtaken by it, which is, of course, just it.
The parlor of Satis House is filled with plunder from Miss Havisham’s late brother’s exotic adventures: a tiger rug, tiny replicas of whales, horns and shells, globes, stuffed birds in glass cylinders gathering dust. The room’s focal point is a display of butterflies in a huge glass case, slowly growing over with cobwebs—it’s shabby-chic, biology-chic, like a room from the Anthropologie catalog that’s been badly neglected. “He went to the furthest reaches of the earth in his search for the purest specimen of beauty,” Miss Havisham says of her brother’s butterflies. “When he found it he stuck a pin through its heart.” Do you understand? There is a figurative meaning. To the butterflies.
Satis House is an extension of Miss Havisham, and she is its most disturbing relic. Gillian Anderson’s portrayal is brilliantly freaky — she plays her like a frail but erratic animal, speaking in a baby’s sing-song. Her lips are gray and peeling, her hands are bloody from where she has scratched them raw, and she only grows more pale and withered throughout the series, until she is literally skeletal.
Miss Havisham is only one of the characters who appear more monster than human. When Magwitch emerges from the marshes, his huge bald head and mud-caked skin make him look like a swamp creature. The evil Orlick, Pip’s brother-in-law Joe’s assistant on the forge, has black cracked teeth and dead eyes and sores covering his face, and he grins and lumbers around like a zombie. Some of these characterizations are small: the way the filmmakers give the foul but well-bred Bentley Drummle a cleft-lip to indicate his inner badness was downright Dickensian. (N.B.: when my younger brother was entering college, I asked him how his freshman orientation had gone. “It was full of dickheads,” he said. “It was dickheads-ian.”)
Pip and his true love, Miss Havisham’s daughter Estella, are, by contrast, immaculate. The actors who play them, Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby, both have that fashion-model beauty that is soft and unusual and endlessly compelling. In one scene they are picnicking by a lake, and Estella, overcome with abandon, pulls off her slippers and stockings and wades in the water, scandalously holding her petticoats above her knees. Pip follows her in and they share a tentative kiss. For a moment I was transported out of the series and into a Ralph Lauren perfume ad.
If you don’t remember reading about the tender picnic in your ninth grade English class, that’s because it isn’t in the book. Neither is the scene where Drummle takes Pip to his “other club,” a fancy whorehouse appearing to boast prostitutes from every continent. Thankfully the filmmakers take some liberties. I did regret their choice to omit Biddy, Pip’s childhood confidante and later Joe’s wife, from the miniseries — first because it is all too predictable that they would eliminate the only kind and sensible female character, and second because I wanted Joe to end the story with a lady by his side.
Played by Shaun Dooley, Joe is a big ruddy pillar of pathos, designed to perfectly elicit love, admiration, and pity. When Joe is enlisted by magistrates to repair Magwitch’s shackles, Magwitch claims he has stolen a piece of Pip’s family’s Christmas pie. “Us don’t begrudge you a bit of pie,” Joe says angelically. Miss Havisham finances Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe to become a blacksmith, and Joe signs the contract just “Jo,” and God, he is so strong. It sprains your heart when Pip leaves for London and Joe calls, “Don’t forget about us Pip!” and when Joe shows up at Pip’s club in London and Pip snubs him, it breaks. Your. Heart. Joe is the kind of character that bestirs ovaries, like the Irish cop in Bridesmaids.
In Vanity Fair recently there was a feature on Courtney Love, who, after losing her daughter and all her money, is now obsessed with marrying into British nobility. I thought of Courtney as I watched Miss Havisham, particularly when she pawed at Estella, clutching the letters she had sent from London and crowing, “They’re not detaaailed enough!” Miss Havisham’s desperation has no nuance, and her dialog’s anvil-subtlety supplies countless delights. When little Pip asks if her feet are cold, she replies, “All of me is cold.” “It is the ghost of a wedding cake, and I am the ghost of a bride,” she explains for Pip and anyone else who is a little behind. She vows to make Drummle’s world “a cold and joyless stone” once he marries Estella. “You know nothing about men, Miss Havisham,” Pip says, in the understatement of the nineteenth century.
Thanks to cable television, we now have a word for what Miss Havisham is: a hoarder. The source of the dysfunction at Satis House is as obvious as on an episode of Hoarders — you know, “I started that pile of dirty diapers the day my son died,” etc. Indeed, Miss Havisham and Estella are remarkably contemporary in their ability to psychologize themselves. “How could you be so cold?” Miss Havisham asks Estella. “It is what you trained me to be,” Estella replies. Estella tells Pip, “Everyone’s meant to love me. But I don’t love back,” and then Pip cries pretty-girl tears. “I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to hurt everybody,” Miss Havisham says to Pip at the end of the series. Hurt breeds hurt; you don’t have to consult Oprah to know that. You could have heard it on The Tyra Show.
It’s understandable that Estella would have some issues with marriage. She is shown hyperventilating under her veil on the day of her wedding, a shot that is echoed moments later when Miss Havisham lowers her own veil, walks downstairs to the dining room, and sets herself on fire. Miss Havisham’s self-immolation was what I was most looking forward to here, and it is worth the price of admission, even if that price were more than zero dollars. She gazes in the mirror with saintly ecstasy as the blaze envelop her body; her form becomes a shadow in the mass of flames. It is Miss Havisham herself who insists that beauty is a destroyer, and her death is the fulfillment of the visual ethic of the series — its most terrible scene is also its most beautiful.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about David Milch's Luck. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Amygdala" - Valets ft. Moral Reef (mp3)
"American Style" - Valets (mp3)
"Lines" - Valets (mp3)