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Young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) visits Satis House (Holdenby House's courtyard transformed digitally by Triad Digital).

One of the most polarizing aspects of Great Expectations 2011 is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham. Many people loved it; as many hated it.

At 43 years of age, some critics regard the actress as being too young for the part. Yet Martita Hunt played Miss Havisham in David Lean’s classic when she was 47, only fours years older than Gillian. Helena Bonham Carter is set to play Miss Havisham in a new theatrical film version coming out later this year. She will soon be 44 years old.

Others find Gillian Anderson’s take on Miss Havisham to be all wrong. I agree with the critic who wrote that regardless of how one feels about the actress as Miss Havisham, she dominates her scenes as the jilted bride. Paired with the CG changes made to Holdenby House to transform it into Satis House, the viewer is treated to one of the creepier interpretations of Miss Havisham in her rotting manse.

Stone angel in courtyard strangled by vines.

The film sets up Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella by transforming the courtyard into a dark, vine-strangled environment. This alone should tell Pip that all is not right with his new patron.

Transformed courtyard.

Miss Havisham glides down the stairs like a ghostly apparition.

In this adaptation, Pip’s first glimpse of Miss Havisham is of her gliding down the stairs in a candle-lit, dark oak stairwell. A break in the curtain backlights her figure and features. Not a word is said. In the novel, Pip has heard that Miss Havisham is an immensely rich and grim lady who led a life of seclusion.

The stairs are covered with dust and candles are fully ablaze despite the day light.

Miss Havisham as an eerie apparition is enhanced in this scene in which her white figure is indistinct and as fuzzy as the dust on the stairs.

When she discovered that her bridegroom-to-be had absconded with her money and her heart, Miss Havisham was at her dressing table putting on her bridal clothes. She had put on one shoe, her other foot was stockinged. Gillian Anderson is seen walking barefoot, a change in Dickens’ story that I found perplexing. In fact, many of the changes in both plot, scenes, and costumes seemed odd.

Surely the dress would have been yellower and more ragged and tattered after having been worn for so long?

While I enjoyed Gillian Anderson’s reworking of Miss Havisham into a neurotic recluse with a tendency towards self-mutilation, I wondered at the decision to make her appear like a mini-me version of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane. Her wedding gown, I suppose, was meant to look like a Regency version of a bridal dress, but to my way of thinking it resembled a nightie. Her curls, which were not supposed to have been touched in years, hung tight around her face. By the time Pip met her, her white hair would have looked like a rat’s nest.  The delicate fabric of her gown remained remarkably intact – it should have been frayed, especially at the edges and where she sat. She was not wearing a veil, which should have been attached askew on her head. And her train would  have been tattered and filthy, and had an ombre look about it, going from black at the floor to dark gray, to lighter grey until it met the yellowing white color of the gown higher up.

One way to assess if the changes were beneficial is to turn to Dickens’ own words:

In Dickens' great tale, Pip met Miss Havisham as she sat near her dressing table.

However the only thing to be done being to knock at the door. I knocked and was told from within to enter. I entered therefore and found myself in a pretty large room well lighted with wax candle.s No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it. It was a dressing room as I supposed from the furniture though much of it was of forms and uses then quite unknown to me. But prominent in it was a draped table with a gilded looking glass, and that I made out at first sight to be a fine lady’s dressing table.”

In this film, Miss Havisham walks Pip through a room filled with dusty glass dome-covered scientific specimens that her dead brother had collected from exotic places, much as a docent would accompany a visitor through a musty science museum.

Dead specimens under dusty glass.

Pip’s actual first impression of Miss Havisham after walking through a dark house was much more powerful and immediate:

In an armchair with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.”

Once beautiful butterflies pinned into a frozen position, a rather obvious visual simile.

Dickens gave the costume and set designers a plethora of descriptions to work with:

She was dressed in rich materials, satins and lace and silks, all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair; and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck, and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on, the other was on the table near her hand; her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief; and gloves and some flowers and a prayer book all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.”

Gillian Anderson's lips are as parched as dry paper, but the curls are too neat for someone who has not tended to her hair in decades.

I have no quarrel with Gillian Anderson’s age. The book is written through Pip’s eyes, and a young boy would have found anyone in their 40’s to be ancient. Gillian did an excellent job of resembling someone who had not seen sunlight in decades, and whose physical condition was deteriorating as a result of physical and emotional neglect. Her curls make her look much too young and are incongruent. Why would she take care to wear such beautiful curls when she has neglected everything else about her appearance?

Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham in the yet to be released Great Expectations

If viewers were turned off by Gillian’s creepy Miss Havisham, with her high-pitched little girl voice and nervous bird-like mannerisms, then the above photo indicates that Helena Bonham Carter’s take on the spinster is set to go over the top as well. Let’s go back to Dickens’ description of Pip’s first meeting with his new patron to see if these interpretations fit in with his vision of the jilted bride:

It was not in the first minute that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first minute than might be supposed. But I saw that every thing within my view, which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and, like the flowers, and had no brightness left, but the brightness of her sunken eyes.  I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. “

Miss Havisham was a skeletal, withered shadow of a woman who shone as dimly as a pale moon hidden behind clouds. Gillian’s Miss Havisham shines just a little too brightly.

Pip approaches Estella for the first time.

It was when I stood before her avoiding her eyes that I took note of the surrounding objects in detail, and saw that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine.”

For some strange reason, the clocks in the film had stopped at 11:00. It’s these minor inattentions to detail that grate.

Izzy Meikle-Small plays the haughty young Estella.

“Look at me”, said Miss Havisham. “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born.”

These words would have been much more powerful in the introductory scene than Gillian’s museum tour guide of her rooms.

David Lean's Great Expectations featured a rather mature Jean Simmons. Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Tony Wager as Pip.

David Lean’s set was dark, as described by Dickens. Too much sunlight was allowed inside the house Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham inhabited. This served to make Satis House look much dirtier but less creepy.

I find it remarkable that many critics found this adaptation visually too gloomy. I think there is too much light. Dickens described the curtains as emitting no light whatsoever.

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it once, while now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of every thing, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

So she sat corpse like as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress looking like earthy paper, as if they would crumble under a touch. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen, but I have often thought since that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust”

The above description tells us why it would have been more important for the set designer to have kept Miss Havisham in total darkness. While some of the effects of the light on the dust and dirt was striking, the only evidence of “earthy paper” was on Gillian Anderson’s parched lips.


This set of the decaying bridal banquet is gorgeous. The house itself is allowed to rot (and Pip begins to notice the water damage and crumbling walls as he matures), much as Miss Havisham is allowing herself to rot inside and out. There were moments when the production shone. The film’s colors follow the current trend for digital color correction to create atmosphere. Whether you like it or not, I’m afraid the trend is here to stay.

The wedding cake looked skeletal and creepy, as if bugs were ready to crawl out of it. Still, would so much of the food and flowers have remained recognizable?

Miss Havisham's self-mutilation is evident early on in the film.

The self-mutilation, in this instance, Miss Havisham is constantly scratching her hand, was an interesting touch that added another layer to her manic obsessions. At times she seemed completely insane and incapable of self-possession. In this adaptation, Gillian portrays Miss Havisham as a weak victim who somehow finds the strength of will to plot her revenge on all male-kind.

The letter of betrayal from Compeyson, the fiance who jilted Miss Havisham.

The incongruity of a perfect white veil over the decaying flowers and (finally) the tattered sleeves struck me as being wrong in Gillian’s final scenes. While I loved the cinematography of the exterior sets, these visual mistakes detracted from my enjoyment of the story. One other thought: while I enjoyed watching the young Pip and Estella, I was bothered by their older counterparts. It was very hard for me to swallow that Pip was more beautiful than the girl he loved.

Vanessa Kirby as Estella and Douglas Booth as Pip

Your thoughts?

You can watch Great Expectations online through May 8th on PBSs website.

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