Just when “Downton Abbey” made America fall back in love with British costume dramas, here comes “Great Expectations” to break the spell.
Not that the second season of “Downton,” a piece of gimcrack compared to the first, deserved all the affection it received. But it was a pleasure compared to the next Masterpiece Classic entry on PBS, a two-part BBC production beginning on Sunday that represents literary adaptation at its most monotonous and wrongheaded.
Written by Sarah Phelps, whose experience is in soap opera — she’s responsible for a prodigious number of episodes of the British hit “EastEnders” — this “Great Expectations” crams a surprising amount of Charles Dickens’s plot into its three hours while failing to capture any of the novel’s overwhelming emotion or overriding strangeness.
In the hands of Ms. Phelps and the director Brian Kirk, it renders the story of the orphaned blacksmith’s apprentice Pip — entranced as a child by the bizarre Miss Havisham and her ward, Estella, then sent to London by a secret benefactor to become a gentleman — in a drab palette that matches the Point A to Point B storytelling. The mystery, tragedy and adventure of Pip’s tale are outlined but never really conveyed.
Mr. Kirk tries for some flair in the scenes set in the Thames marshes, including the famous opening in which Pip first encounters the escaped convict Magwitch — they have a misty, sickly grandeur. Otherwise, his direction is the usual dead-ahead television point and shoot.
One strain of the novel that engages Ms. Phelps and Mr. Kirk is its stifled eroticism. But rather than trying to capture how it defines the relationships among Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham, they seem more interested in making points about class and gender and indulging in risible psychologizing.
So we get an invented scene in which Pip is taken to a brothel, where his discomfort is attributed to a lack of breeding, and we get Estella wading into a pond with Pip and hitching her dress up so high that an entire bare leg is exposed. Miss Havisham’s guilt at her manipulation of Estella and Pip is expressed by making the burning of her dress an explicit and deadly act of self-immolation. If you ever wondered what a Dickens novel adapted by Jane Campion (“The Piano,” “Portrait of a Lady”) might look like, here’s your answer.
You could argue that the 170-minute series was at a disadvantage next to the marvelous recent BBC adaptations of “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit” written by Andrew Davies, which were more than twice as long. But there have been two wonderful films of “Great Expectations” that rendered the novel in under two hours. In both cases — David Lean in 1946 and Alfonso Cuaron in 1998 — the director’s visual imagination made up for any abbreviations in the story.
As always in a British production, there is pleasure to be had in the performances, including Ray Winstone as the menacing Magwitch; David Suchet as the harsh lawyer, Jaggers; and Paul Ritter (the hilarious father in “Friday Night Dinner”) as the clerk, Wemmick.
Oscar Kennedy is excellent as the young Pip of the opening scenes. Unfortunately Pip soon grows into Douglas Booth, a CW-style actor whose exceptionally pretty face doesn’t convey much beyond puzzlement and petulance.
And then there’s Gillian Anderson, the production’s biggest selling point, whose casting as Miss Havisham at a relatively young 43 has been much remarked upon. If only age were the problem. By her own choice or not, Ms. Anderson, wearing raccoon-like black eye shadow and affecting a quavering, high-pitched little girl’s voice, gives a hand-scratching, head-twitching, crazy-lady performance that would have done Joan Crawford proud. It’s as if we’re watching “The X-Files,” and Scully turned out to be the alien.
PBS, Sunday nights (check local listings).
Written by Sarah Phelps, from the novel by Charles Dickens. Produced by BBC Productions and Masterpiece. Anne Pivcevic, executive producer; Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for Masterpiece; George Ormond, producer; Steven Ashley and Susanne Simpson, senior producers for Masterpiece; Brian Kirk, director.
WITH: Gillian Anderson (Miss Havisham), Douglas Booth (Pip), Oscar Kennedy (Young Pip), Shaun Dooley (Joe), Claire Rushbrook (Mrs. Joe), Jack Roth (Dolge Orlick), Vanessa Kirby (Estella), David Suchet (Jaggers), Harry Lloyd (Herbert Pocket), Ray Winstone (Magwitch) and Paul Ritter (Wemmick).