BBC’s Great Expectations gives Charles Dickens a gritty sexy makeover

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Following in the footsteps of his grown-up adaptation of A Christmas Carol back in 2019, Steven Knight is at it again, this time turning his pen to Charles Dickens’ rags to riches tale Great Expectations. But forget well-starched shirt collars and stilted talk from men in top hats, the BBC’s new adaptation of Great Expectations is a very different beast altogether. Instead, expect swearing, spanking and opium addicts with this post-watershed take on the novel.

Knight has moved away from the more chocolate box presentations of this social mobility allegory in favour of gritty realism and it works well.

He has very much read between the lines and his bleak take feels much fresher and is a world away from the staid traditional costume Dickens dramas of yore.

We’ve had umpteen adaptations of Great Expectations favouring a more literal reading of the book; a version of Great Expectations like this was greatly overdue.

He taps into the extreme poverty, wealth, corruption and decadence of the time living cheek-by-jowl in London.

Knight’s vision of Victorian London is so dank and squalid you can even feel the city’s filth on your skin.

His re-imagining of the capital as a living, breathing entity, akin to a ravenous creature consuming naives like Pip (Fionn Whitehead) whole and spitting out the bones, feels apt.

Speaking of Pip, Whitehead plays up the contrast between the blacksmith’s boy and aspiring gentleman well, but it’s Olivia Colman’s Miss Havisham who commands the screen with her take on the warped, jilted bride clad in the tatters of her moulding gown.

Much like her Oscar-winning portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite, Colman does damaged creatures well. There’s pathos in her performance underneath it the layers of creepiness.

For the most part, Colman’s Miss Havisham makes you recoil in horror as she discusses her “sick fantasies”. She is a truly terrifying creature to behold and it is surprising Colman initially turned down the role before having a change of heart.

There’s also a strong early performance from Chloe Lea as young Estella as she sheds light on her toxic relationship with Miss Havisham and reveals to Pip she’s just as trapped and a victim of her circumstances as he is.

Her hissed whispers about her inescapable situation make her feel more human rather than just the spiteful, spoilt and proud versions of Estella in the past.

Line of Duty’s Shalom Brune-Franklin does an admirable job taking over as the older iteration later on.

Meanwhile, Jaggers (Ashely Thomas) has been given a bigger role with Top Boy star Thomas drawing you in with his sinister presence and swaggering gait with a promise of more to come from him.

The flaws within all of the characters in this series are played out. No one comes out well in this including Sara Gargery (Hayley Squires) brutalising her younger brother and penchant for violence or Mr Pumblechook’s (Matt Berry) indiscretions.

In fact, all the characters need to go to therapy given their various traumas created by their social situations, but it makes them all the richer.

Although Great Expectations isn’t a genteel affair, it’s still an undeniably gorgeous, cinematic watch.

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The sweeping drone shots of the marshes and Pip’s Gravesend contrast with the gothic aesthetics of Miss Havisham’s mansion Satis House.

These again contrast wonderfully with the harshness and dark shadows of London. When combined together, these make for a rich and textured story taking audiences across the entire spectrum of Victorian society.

There are parallels between Pip’s world and 2023 with the stark haves and have-nots amid the Cost of Living Crisis with families forced to choose between heating and eating.

Those decrying Great Expectations for being woke are missing out on a compelling drama.

Great Expectations airs on BBC One tonight at 9pm

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