Dickens' morality tale lives up to its name

Preview: `Great Expectations,' the classic about 19th century English social classes, resonates down through the years just fine thanks to a daring interpretation and terrific and terrifying performances.

May 08, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The producers of Mobil Masterpiece Theatre say they took a "dark, deep psychological approach" to Dickens in their version of "Great Expectations," which starts tomorrow night on PBS.

And the moment Miss Havisham opens her mouth to tell young Pip, "I have sick fancies, Pip," you know you are sailing down Psycho River, heading straight for Freudian Falls, pulled by a narrative undertow impossible to resist. Nobody does "sick fancies" like the Brits.

This is Dickens you could drown in and love every wet and wild minute of it. I am not a great fan of Dickens, but I love this rich, daring, psychologically charged interpretation. Shot on film and layered with incredibly nuanced and evocative lighting, this BBC production is a delight simply to look at. My only complaint is that I wish I could see it on a movie theater screen.

"Great Expectations," for those who were out sick that week of freshman English, is the tale of a blacksmith's apprentice named Pip who is plucked from humble beginnings in the North Country and set up to live in London as a gentleman-in-training through the goodness of an unknown benefactor. His newfound social stature makes him a "young fellow of great expectations."

As a child, Pip (Gabriel Thomson) has two encounters with the adult world that reverberate through his life and leave serious scar tissue. One is with an escaped convict (Bernard Hill) in the marshes near the house where Pip, an orphan, lives under the rule of his cruel sister.

The other is with Miss Havisham (Charlotte Rampling), a wealthy woman who resides in a ramshackle mansion with her ward, a beautiful and haughty girl named Estrella (Gemma Gregory). Miss Havisham is quite deranged. Jilted on her wedding day, she lives as a recluse in her bridal gown amid the decayed ruins of the wedding feast. Estrella, too, is in training -- a young lady being trained to extract revenge on men for the abandonment Miss Havisham suffered on her wedding day.

The greatness of this production starts with Miss Havisham -- both in the producers' take on her and Rampling's brilliantly mad performance.

"We wanted to try and create a Miss Havisham who had a certain modernity in the sense that she wasn't kind of a rattled, old, over-the-top melodramatic hag, and that she would have, shall we say, a sort of frisson-filled relationship with Pip," producer David Snodin says. "And Charlotte plays her as someone who is in deep need of therapy, someone who is really mad. It's a terrifying performance."

It's frisson-filled all right, from the moment they meet in that spooky house and the older woman runs her fingers through the boy's hair as she tells him of her "sick fancies."

There are other strong performances, most notably from Ioan Gruffudd ("Horatio Hornblower") as the adult Pip, who is sorely tested by fate and finds, contrary to 19th-century conventional wisdom, that moral character does not rise as you move up the social ladder. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. The Brits do social class even better than "sick fancies."

The scenes between Gruffudd and Justine Waddell, as the adult Estrella, crackle with desire, and it is Gruffudd generating most of the heat. But, beyond that, "Great Expectations" is a great coming-of-age story, and Gruffudd touches all the dramatic bases, from manchild-on-the-make to the gentle man who seems to have found a deeply moral center in a culture where such things are not easily located.

That morality tale from Dickens' London might sound old-fashioned. But, in this BBC telling, it translates just fine even to these postmodern times.

`Great Expectations'

When: 9 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) Pub Date: 5/08/99

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