Great Expectations review: Steven Knight fails to ignite Charles Dickens classic

The Dickens tale gets another adaptation from the creator of Peaky Blinders

Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman), Pip (Fionn Whitehead) in Great Expectations (BBC)
Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) and Pip (Fionn Whitehead) in Great Expectations. (BBC)

With Peaky Blinders, SAS Rogue Heroes, and now Great Expectations (on BBC One from Sunday, 26 March) Steven Knight must be the busiest man in television.

Following on from his adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 2019, this hefty re-imagining of the Charles Dickens classic stars Olivia Colman (Wonka), Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), and Ashley Thomas (The Ipcress File) as Miss Havisham, Pip, and Mr. Jaggers respectively.

They all give this rags to riches fable an air of authenticity, despite the deviations into contemporary language, and some ad-hoc drug addiction thrown in for good measure.

Read more: Olivia Colman unrecognisable as Miss Havisham

With multiple adaptations already brought to film and television screens, there is the question of whether another interpretation of Great Expectations was really necessary, since many still consider the 1946 David Lean version untouchable?

What this updated take on Pip’s journey from blacksmith’s apprentice to London gentlemen proves, is that there may yet be room for one more.

Jaggers (Ashley Thomas) in Great Expectations (BBC)
Jaggers (Ashley Thomas) in Great Expectations. (BBC)

Opening with the escape from incarceration of Magwitch (Johnny Harris) and Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle), this polished premiere strikes a particularly gothic note. Trapped out on the marshes and pursued by dogs, one convict comes into contact with a young Pip (Tom Sweet), seeking solace amongst the gravestones. As his guardians Joe (Owen McDonnell) and Sara (Hayley Squires) sleep soundly, Pip shows Magwitch a moment of compassion which itself has long lasting repercussions.

Pip is soon sold into servitude for cash as a companion to Estella (Chloe Lea), who in turn is being schooled by the perpetual bride Miss Havisham, which creates this show’s pivotal dynamic. Estella represents retribution on men everywhere, as this affluent spinster creates a reflection of her own rejection through the young lady. That Pip invariably falls in love with Estella to his detriment serves as a crucial plot device in this complex tale of tragedy.

Read more: Cillian Murphy shares Peaky Blinders movie update

As Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin) and Pip become young adults, the tale moves to London. Now under the affluent influence of Mr Jaggers, Pip is gifted considerable wealth, as well as enviable job prospects within his law firm. A series of events which are overseen by Miss Havisham, who displays a calculated indifference to his well being.

Magwitch (Johnny Harris) in Great Expectations (BBC)
Magwitch (Johnny Harris) in Great Expectations. (BBC)

There has been criticism of the contemporary cursing which Steven Knight introduces here, that some say may have tarnished this adaptation. It is true that Pip does swear on occasion, while Miss Havisham enjoys more than a little bit of opium, but this rarely detracts from the dramatic impact of anything which takes place. However, beyond the stand out performance from Olivia Colman, who injects her opium smoking creation with an aggression verging on mania – Great Expectations benefits more from the presence of Ashley Thomas.

His expanded interpretation of Mr. Jaggers is without doubt a high water mark in terms of drama. There is a conniving quality to his intentions towards Pip, which ensure that this performance pitches somewhere between benevolent protector and profiteering turncoat, without missing a beat.

What other critics thought of Great Expectations

Digital Spy: Great Expectations fails to deliver (3 min read)

The Independent: It's hard to feel excited about this new take on Dickens (4 min read)

Variety: Great Expectations has an electric Olivia Colman, but not enough else (2 min read)

The Telegraph: Charles Dickens is given a grimy, macho, very Peaky makeover (3 min read)

However, the only problem with period dramas which stem from classic novels is their familiarity. A vast majority of audiences who intentionally tune in to watch Great Expectations will have read the book. No pun intended, but that brings with it some great expectations of its own, which no writer could ever hope to match.

Unfortunately, this is the position Steven Knight finds himself in before those opening credits have even finished. If for no other reason than the fact that everyone is a critic when it comes to classic literature. Not only that, but there are numerous scholars and armchair experts up and down the country, who feel that Charles Dickens is untouchable.

Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle) in Great Expectations (BBC)
Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle) in Great Expectations. (BBC)

Adaptations of this nature are also reprimanded for being contemporary, whether that is through an alteration in language, which somehow upsets the sensibilities of the silent majority, or trying to draw in fresh blood by addressing certain social taboos. Again, this is where the Steven Knight adaptation of Great Expectations is coming under fire, since there are things which some say undermines the narrative of this classic tome.

However, taken on face value this interpretation works well. Performances across the board are excellent, while Olivia Colman brings yet another fresh take on Miss Havisham to sit alongside those that have come before.

In truth, there is no period drama that is likely to re-invent the wheel, but at least this joint production between FX Networks and the BBC has the courage of its convictions.

Great Expectations will premiere on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 26 March.

Watch a trailer below.