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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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A good reviewer is not supposed to give the game away early, but I can’t help but gush: If you haven’t seen Any Human Heart when it aired on PBS, you will have an opportunity to watch the episodes online the Monday after its initial showing, from Feb 14 to March 22, and two more weeks to catch the last two episodes on screen (February 20 & February 27).

Some critics have dismissed this mini-series as another Forrest Gump story, wherein the fictional hero moves through the 20th century and rubs shoulders with famous people. I can assure you that this is the only trait that these two movies have in common, for one is filmed from the perspective of magic realism and the other is a gritty view of a man’s life and his failures and successes. I began to watch the first episode of Any Human Heart when I had the time to view the DVD from start to end. I was glad that I had five free hours, for I could not stop watching it. The opening credits had a similar feel to the opening of Mad Men, which clued me in that this mini-series would not offer a one-note plot (I have not read William Boyd’s book, but intend to), and that cigarettes would be used as a prop. I was right.

We meet Logan Mountstuart almost immediately in all of his personifications (in misty watercolor memories) – from childhood,

Conor Nealon as Logan Mountstuart, youth

to young man,

Sam Claflin as Logan Mounstuart, young man

to mature man,

Matthew MacFadyen as Logan, mature man

to an old man reminiscing about his life.

Jim Broadbent as an old Logan

“I’m all these different people,” he thinks as the camera pans to a misty scene of a river bank. “Which life is truly mine?”

The three Logans on the river bank

Logan rummages through the detritus of his life, burning memories (much as Cassandra Austen burned her sister Jane’s letters) and looking over his journals. “Your past never leaves you,” he says early on.

Burning memories

There are many reasons to watch Any Human Heart, not the least of which are the performances.

Matthew MacFadyen


Logan is a flawed, egotistical man whose ambition to write his great novel eludes him. Too often he is ruled by his heart, not his head, and he is easily influenced by external events and his own and other peoples’ desires. Matthew captures this man perfectly. We see him happy and content only with Freya.

Freya (Haley Atwell) and Logan

For the rest of his life he compromises, and it becomes a struggle. Not that his love story with Freya is without fault, for Logan leaves his wife and son to be with her. I am a child of divorce whose father never bothered to come and visit, and so I thought myself incapable of feeling much empathy for a man who abandons his son and sleeps with his friend’s girlfriend and wife, but Matthew MacFadyen’s performance had me riveted.

End of Logan's first marriage with wife #1, Lottie (Emerald Fennell)

Logan’s character is complex, and Matthew portrays all his shades in such a way that, although I found Logan’s actions often repellent, I also felt sorry for the choices he made and how the plans of his youth unraveled. “Life has to be encountered with an ignorance of sheer faith.” Ah, Logan.

Jim Broadbent

During the first two episodes, Broadbent’s role as Logan in old age is largely silent, but in this actor’s skilled hands, the viewer knows exactly what is happening and why.

Mature Logan (Jim Broadbent) in France

When Broadbent finally takes center stage in the third episode, the final chapter of Logan’s life is told. Now old and bent and poor again (for his assignments as a reporter have dried up), he has taken to eating dog food to stay alive and selling newspapers for a radical group.

Logan selling radical newspapers

The older Logan reviews his life through the lens of knowledge and experience, and what he sees and remembers makes him wince. “We never stay the same person. We change as we grow older. It’s part of the story of our life.”

Gillian Anderson

With The King’s Speech up for a gazillion awards, this is a propitious time to portray Wallis Simpson, and Gillian has taken on the part with gusto.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Gillian Anderson as Wallis Simpson

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard

At any moment I expected her to morph into Gloria Swanson and say “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” or perhaps Morticia, I can’t decide. Not a single person in my social group admires Wallis Simpson, for her reputation as a sexual predator and icy fashionista, and knowledge of her dominatrix control over David have preceded her. Neither the Duchess nor Duke of Windsor come off well in this production.

Wallis spies Logan at a gathering and spews venom

The viewer can think of their story line as Chapter 2, after David abdicated as king in The King’s Speech. As for Gillian, she is carving out quite a career for herself in these spectacular BBC and PBS dramas, and I can’t wait to see more from her. Her performance in this series is over-the-top dramatic, but then wasn’t Wallis herself?

Kim Cattrall

The same goes for Kim, who has recently been flexing her acting muscles onstage in London and in substantial parts such as My Boy Jack and as Gloria Scabalius in this production. She (and Gillian for that matter) show no vanity, allowing themselves to be filmed with makeup that is too white and heavy, as middle aged women who were once beautiful are often wont to do, and play the parts of cougars.

Kim Cattrall as Gloria Scabius, predatory female

In Kim’s case this is literal, as her character, Gloria, has the habit of leaving her mark on her men. She cheats on her husband (Peter Scabius, Logan’s friend), and goes after Logan like a heat-seeking missile.

Kim as Gloria in full cougar regalia

Her final scenes with Logan are full of pathos. (I could not help but think of an ailing Liz Taylor or Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Perhaps Kim will shrug off the bad after effects of that excruciatingly awful film, Sex in the City 2, and accept only meatier roles from now on.

Tom Hollander

Gillian Anderson as Wallis and Tom Hollander as the Duke of Windsor, who needs reminding that he has met Logan before.

You just have to love an actor who is willing to play a weak, self-indulgent, and dangerous man, and capture that personality to a tee. Tom Hollander’s performance as The Duke of Windsor personifies what I think of the former king. As a teenager I read several biographies about the Windsors, thinking like so many others that the king’s willingness to abdicate his throne for the woman he loved was romantic. Well, it was not.

The odd, self-important couple in Nassau.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor toadying up to Adolph Hitler

In this series we see the Windsors for what they are: willing to ruin other peoples’ lives and to use others in order to maintain their self-important but insignificant status. They were stupid and dangerous snobs who hobnobbed with carpet baggers, the nouveau riche and dangerous factions. Tom Hollander portrays the duke as a mighty mite, and he does it perfectly.

Haley Atwell

Haley Atwell as Freya Deverell, Logan's wife #2

One can believe that a man can lose his head, senses, and heart to a woman as beautiful as Freya (Haley). She’s smart, totally in love with her man, and too good to be true. Plus, she smokes as much as Logan. (Some of the scenes were so Bette-Davis-1930’s, where the man offers to light the woman’s cigarette, and so much can be said cinematically through the gestures of a cupped hand touching the other and looks of longing behind curtains of smoke.)

Logan meets Freya, a smoking hot newspaper woman

I don’t think I have ever seen an actress look lovelier in 1940’s dresses than Haley, and in this role she is the personification of Logan’s idea of a perfect woman. As he said,  “Time away from Freya is time lost forever.”

Charity Wakefield as Land Fothergill (Logan's first love) and Sam Claflin as young Logan

The cast of Any Human Heart is so strong that I could continue gushing for another hour. I suppose this mini-series might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly will be watching it again. Simply put, I found it outstanding.

Tess (Holliday Grainger), Logan's first lover

Emerald Fennell as Lottie, Logan's first wife

Natasha Little as Allanah Mountstuart, Logan's 3rd wife

Logan, Gloria, and Lionel, Logan's son (Hugh Skinner)

Tobias Menzies as Ian Fleming

Julian Ovenden as Ernest Hemingway

Samuel West as Peter Scabius, Logan's successful friend

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