I beg of you, writers, enough with the gritty remakes.
The single star which I have awarded FX’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” belongs to the following people: Olivia Colman, reliably excellent as Miss Havisham; Matthew Needham, having an absolute ball playing a demented spice baron; Matt Berry, given too little screen time as a local fixer; Owen McDonnell, whom I’d watch in just about anything, as a kindly blacksmith; and Ashley Thomas as the supremely confident, gnarly solicitor. Those five actors are carrying a production so badly written and so tritely directed (and photographed and scored) that viewers will struggle to stay awake.
Pip Gargery (Fionn Whitehead) is an orphan living in coastal Kent with his blacksmith brother-in-law Joe (McDonnell) and his viciously abusive sister Sara (Hayley Squires). Like most of Dickens’ orphans, Pip dreams of a grand life in which he does not have to adopt Joe’s trade; he wishes to travel the world. The local wealthy madwoman, Amelia Havisham (Colman), twisted by rage at being abandoned by the altar, lives in her wedding dress while destroying her adopted daughter Estella’s (Shalom Brune-Franklin) emotional and psychological health. Pip is hired to serve as a companion to Estella; Miss Havisham observes the pair and encourages Estella to treat him with abject cruelty. An unknown benefactor finances Pip’s journey into London life, where he meets his new boss, Mr. Jaggers (Thomas). Together they try to topple the spice trade empire of Bentley Drummle (Needham), a craven man engaged to Estella.
Though most of the cast provide interesting performances, each of their takes on their characters belong to different genres. Colman’s take on Havisham is riveting, imbuing each word not with moping and sorrow but with poisonous rage and a hellbent desire for revenge on any man she can find. Berry’s Pumblechuck doesn’t get much to do, but the light and dark shades of the character could have added more layers to the scenes in Pip’s village (which is his exact purpose in the book); the same is true for McDonald, while Thomas’ Jaggers belongs in a steampunk film. But Steven Knight, the series writer and creator, bothers with neither cohesion nor coherence. Instead, the writing feels more like a combination of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes,” “Peaky Blinders,” (which Knight created) along with a dash of “Game of Thrones”-style operatic world-building. You know who knew how to effectively document the darkness and despair of 1860s London? Charles Dickens. And he didn’t need a dominatrix, orgies, or a literal shoot-out at a burning mansion to do it.
The craft of the series is sorely lacking. Of course, 1860s London was gray and black and miserable, but why does everything in that tonal palette now have to look like “Ozark”? The original score for the series is senseless too. It is possible to effectively use modern music in a period piece (“Marie Antoinette” and “Corsage” come to mind), but the only way I can describe what I heard here was “True Detective” lite. Turns out, that’s not a coincidence: composer Keefus Ciancia assisted T-Bone Burnett on the background score of the HBO blockbuster. But where “True Detective” was tempered with generous dollops of metal, hip-hop, country, and psychedelic rock, Ciancia’s score for “Great Expectations” sounds like minimalist dubstep meets Nine Inch Nails. It simply does not work, and the more annoyed I became with the poor quality of the writing—practically every line of dialogue is either an insult or a threat, all possessing the sharpness of a rusted kitchen blade—the more aggravating the score seemed too. Additionally, I’m a proud advocate for color-blind casting, but such a practice is only interesting when done well. You can’t hire a diverse cast, hand them rubbish lines of dialogue that stretch even the most generous of audience imaginations, and expect praise for your efforts.
However, it all comes back to the writing, something that Knight has been lauded for in the past (“Eastern Promises”) but equally criticized, especially lately (“A Christmas Carol”). In “Great Expectations,” Knight’s writing constantly hits the audience over the head, as if to cement the idea that adding sex and violence makes something edgier and cooler, and therefore better than what came before. Charles Dickens wasn’t exactly known for writing lighthearted stories, and Great Expectations is far from his best work, but there's enough on the page that doesn't need to be enhanced to get attention. (His best work, in my humble opinion, is Bleak House or The Old Curiosity Shop.) Why do sex and violence have to be added to an adaptation in order to make it appealing? Why is it so difficult to honor the source material without resorting to cheap tricks? Joke’s on me, I suppose. I saw Colman’s name in the trailer a month ago and rushed to my editor to pitch this review. Next time, I’ll consider the writer too and temper my … expectations.
Full series screened for review. "Great Expectations" premieres on March 26th exclusively on Hulu.
Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham
Fionn Whitehead as Pip
Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella
Hayley Squires as Sara
Matt Berry as Mr. Pumblechuck