June 9, 2023

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. 

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