After a bleak reimagining of “A Christmas Carol” in 2019, Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) is back to give another Charles Dickens tale, “Great Expectations,” similar treatment, with equally grim results. While the underlying story is better suited to such tinkering, even Olivia Colman’s toothy performance can’t salvage this six-part production, meaning viewers should set their expectations accordingly.
Fionn Whitehead (“Dunkirk”) stars as Pip, the poor orphan who is plucked from his humble means and given an opportunity to glimpse life among the upper class by the eccentric Miss Havisham, who Colman invests with a wide-eyed horror movie vibe. Looking the boy over, she muses of his training to become a gentleman that he’s “like an orchid growing wild in the filth of a stable.”
Despite his surreal environs, Pip almost immediately falls for the other young denizen of Havisham’s house, Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin). Her chilly reserve toward him reflects a numbed acceptance of the harsh reality that, as Havisham tartly tells her, “Girls of your birth really don’t have choices.”
There’s obviously a lot more going on than that, including Pip’s act of kindness toward the escaped convict Magwitch (Johnny Harris), and the latter’s bloody feud with Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle). Pip also receives a taste of the ruthlessness required to achieve the life that he envisions from the attorney Jaggers (Ashley Thomas, whose voice seldom rises above a menacing whisper).
Knight and co-director Samira Radsi certainly give the production an edge, from brutal fight scenes to four-letter words. The story, however, grinds along sluggishly, and while a six-hour format provides the creative team the ability to give Dickens’ weighty book its due, the detours down grimy alleyways tend to work against the project more than for it.
Strategically speaking, FX/Hulu has little downside in partnering with the BBC on these productions, adding classy-looking fare with Oscar-winning talent like Colman to its menu.
That said, Knight’s fascination with Dickens again demonstrates that such revisions don’t always enhance familiar material (the BBC’s last major version came in 2011), as well as the difference between liking that it’s available and actually choosing to devote six hours to it.
Because unlike poor Estella, streaming viewers have a whole lot of choices.
“Great Expectations” premieres March 26 on Hulu.
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