The trouble with attempting to adapt any novel by Charles Dickens into a three-hour miniseries (a mini miniseries?) is that even the best, cleverest screenwriter will be forced to boil the story down to its essential plot. And though Dickens did not shirk on plot, deliriously crisscrossing fistfuls of them as if each book were an unending game of cat’s cradle, action is not what defined his work.
God, they say, is in the details, and so is Charles Dickens, in the evocation of place, the palpable rise of mood and, most important, the creation of characters so freighted with eccentricity as to be unbelievable but so finely drawn that they live and breathe nonetheless.
In the latest BBC adaptation of “Great Expectations,” which airs in two parts on Masterpiece Classic, only Miss Havisham, as played by Gillian Anderson, is allowed the full dimension of her literary nature. Anderson, who also gave a stellar performance as Lady Dedlock in 2006’s “Bleak House,” shines as one of the author’s most famous creations, a woman jilted on her wedding day who refuses to move beyond that moment, moldering along with her wedding cake and bridal finery. And I mean literally shines; when we first meet her, through the eyes of young Pip (Oscar Kennedy), she is as luminous in a way that recalls Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, after he has become Gandalf the White. Within that alarmingly CG-ish halo is a riveting performance that Dickens, who hastened his death 200 years ago by giving intense dramatic readings of his works, would no doubt applaud.
Although the basic story remains intact, the rest of the characters are sacrificed to time, space and screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ choices, a small tragedy considering the talent of the performers. Raised by his “rampaging” older sister (Claire Rushbrook) and her kindly husband, Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley), in the marshy wastelands, Pip one day encounters an escaped convict (Ray Winstone) who demands a file; Pip adds a pork pie, and when the convict is recaptured, he keeps Pip’s actions to himself.
Pip soon finds himself sent to Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham, to provide companionship to the lady’s young ward, Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small). Despite Estella’s coldness, Pip falls in love and longs to become a gentleman, and worthy of Estella, rather than a lowly blacksmith like Joe, who Phelps has, for reasons of her own, deprived not only of his famous childlike nature but also his unwavering faith in Pip.
Pip seems to get his wish when an anonymous benefactor provides him with money. How the young man Pip (Douglas Booth) handles his newfound station and his courtship of Estella (Vanessa Kirby) forms the bulk of this adaptation.
Although most of the memorable characters are present -- the disapproving lawyer Mr. Jaggers (David Suchet) and his softer assistant Wemmick (Paul Ritter), Pip’s roommate and confidant Herbert Pocket (Harry Lloyd), the dastardly clubman Denby (Paul Rhys) -- they are too often marched through scenes to establish their basic nature or simply honed down to expository nothingness.
Kirby, as Estella, is a compelling mix of ice and fury, but Booth’s Pip lacks any sort of personality until the final scenes. Only amid the dust and mold of Satis House does this “Great Expectations” truly come to life, and then only when Anderson’s Miss Havisham is there to light the way.
‘Masterpiece Classic: Great Expectations’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)