Great Expectations (TV Movie - 1999)
The great expectations that animate the titles of both Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel and Masterpiece Theatre‘s new three-hour adaptation rest upon the thin shoulders of Pip, a downtrodden orphan who finds himself plucked from 19th-century English muck and inexplicably groomed for ruling-class romance as well as financial success. He becomes a ”young man in prosperous circumstances,” as Pip’s eager, jolly pip of a chum, Herbert Pocket, describes him. The classic film Pip, of course, is John Mills, who fairly glowed with wide-eyed innocence in David Lean’s creamily beautiful 1946 version of the tale. (Pocket was, to jog your memory, a delightfully young and perky Alec Guinness.) The 1999-model Pip is a gimlet-eyed, wolfish youth played by Ioan Gruffudd (undo the Welsh and you get John Griffith), who — by a coincidence of American TV scheduling — just last week wrapped up a month’s worth of swashbuckling heroics as C.S. Forester’s earnest young midshipman Horatio Hornblower in a fine, appropriately comic-booky A&E miniseries.
Literary adaptations are — in the current, kookily unpredictable TV landscape — ratings draws right now. The producer Robert Halmi Sr. has made bundles for NBC with overblown versions of classics ranging from The Odyssey to Gulliver’s Travels, thus proving that the audience for such material has always had the potential to be bigger than the numbers of viewers the high-culture-aiming PBS usually draws.
A key to attracting more eyeballs to one’s TV version of a fat old book is to cast a slim young star, and in Gruffudd, coproducers BBC America and WGBH Boston have hit pay dirt. Unlike PBS’ other current sex symbol, Reckless‘ worldly, wry Robson Green, Gruffudd has an uncanny knack for embodying naivety: He always looks vaguely startled by whatever’s going on around him. Combine this with a long face and concave cheekbones, and he has the look of a handsome stallion who just happens to have grown a shock of nice, curly hair. Gruffudd is a horse-boy of a performer, a centaur with a Method actor’s blank stare.
But a Dickens book is never just about a single protagonist, so there isn’t much time for Gruffudd to stand around posing elegantly, as he was able to do on the deck of Hornblower‘s frigate The Indefatigable. Great Expectations is indefatigable in its own way: as a sort of gothic mystery story stuffed with unfathomably motivated characters. Gruffudd’s Pip is an eager beaver who develops pretensions to upper-classiness, yet he’s also a kindly cub who, as a child played by Gabriel Thomson, has the heart to help a grotty, frightening escaped convict named Magwitch (Bernard Hill, who was the captain in James Cameron’s Titanic).
Shortly before young Pip grows into Gruffudd, he meets the mysterious spinster Miss Havisham, played with a tad too much glamour by the perennially ravishing Charlotte Rampling. A wealthy recluse who lives among the rotten ruins of a party for a wedding she never had (rats nibble at green, moldy cake), the gloomy Havisham is guardian to the beautiful, snippily spoiled Estella (played in her adult incarnation by Justine Waddell, last seen in the title role of A&E’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Miss Havisham hires Pip as a companion to Estella, and for a long time he believes it’s Miss H who’s responsible for his rise from lowly blacksmith’s apprentice to London man-about-town.
If we tumble to the true source of Pip’s munificence well before he does, it’s either because some of us have read the book or have seen one of two movie versions (Lean’s or the recent Ethan Hawke- Gwyneth Paltrow update). Or maybe it’s just because we are wise to the ways of Dickensian plot twists, which, in the late 20th century, are what we would call soap opera. In any case, adaptor Tony Marchant and director Julian Jarrold do a good job of moving the proceedings along at a brisk trot.
However, having watched what Masterpiece is boasting is its first ”digital wide-screen production” immediately after a tape of Lean’s ’46 flick, I must rap director Jarrold’s knuckles for copying Lean’s staging and pacing of so many scenes, yet failing to reproduce what was really worth stealing: the sense of doomy bewilderment that Lean’s great cinematographer Guy Green managed to convey in lush, foggy black and white. Ultimately, only Gruffudd conveys Expectations‘ successive themes of innocence, temptation, betrayal, romantic madness, and realistic regret. Gruffudd also had a bit part in Titanic, but based on his TV work, I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually reaches DiCaprian heights of fame. B