Great Expectations review: Even with the infusion of sex and violence, it’s hard to feel excited about this new take on Dickens

Since the invention of the moving image – an event that happened just a few decades after the death of Charles Dickens – there have been at least 18 prominent adaptations of Great Expectations. That’s Pip upon Pip, Magwitch upon Magwitch, Miss Havisham upon Miss Havisham. Everyone, from Alec Guinness and Joan Hickson to Robert de Niro and Ralph Fiennes, has been sucked into the Dickens industrial complex. And now, for no discernible reason, BBC One viewers are being treated to a new adaptation of the novel, this time scripted by Peaky Blinders supremo Steven Knight.

The show follows the adventures of Pip (Tom Sweet as a lad, Fionn Whitehead as a young man), a bright young orphan (“an orchid growing wild in the filth of a stable”) who is thrust into the orbit of Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) and her ward Estella (Chloe Lea/Shalom Brune-Franklin). From there, and via an encounter with a mysterious convict, Pip will fall in love, make his fortune, and fight off countless villains. It is the classic bildungsroman; an all-timer of a coming-of-age story. It’s also the defining work of the Dickens oeuvre and, with the exception of the slim novella, A Christmas Carol (already adapted for television by Knight), the most frequently brought to screen.

It says something about the paucity of parts for women over the age of 40 that Miss Havisham has become a required role for actors out of the first flush of youth, rather like King Lear for men of a certain age. Gillian Anderson, Helena Bonham Carter, Charlotte Rampling – it is a rite of passage for brilliant actresses to play the doomed spinster. It was only a matter of time before Olivia Colman (terrific previously as tragically unlovable women like Queen Anne in The Favourite and Leda in The Lost Daughter) threw her hat in the ring. “Welcome to eternal winter,” Estella whispers to Pip as they enter Miss Havisham’s den, where Colman’s jilted matriarch skulks in the semi-gloom. The problem is that we’ve been here before. The gothic ticks – wedding dress, translucent skin, stopped clocks – are so intensely familiar that trying to put a new spin on the legend is like attempting to reinvent Santa Claus.

But in other areas, Knight is more successful in his attempts to put distance between himself and the source material. Column inches will be needlessly expended on the colour blind casting (a tool that is always more effective in works, like this, which have a profound social conscience) and rather forced commentary on the British empire. But there are, equally, innovations in the form of swear words, drug addictions and light sadomasochism. It is entirely plausible that this adaptation of Great Expectations will be best remembered as the one in which Matt Berry’s naked arse is beaten with a riding crop.

In the end, it’s all very predictable. The story of Great Expectations might be familiar to viewers, but so will be the desire to sex up Victoriana. From Bridgerton to Black Sails, Knight’s own Peaky Blinders to Knight’s own Taboo, the idea that period dramas aren’t all stuffed shirts and stiff collars is being rammed down viewers’ throats. “Morality is for Sunday morning,” Estella tells birthday boy Pip, as she ushers him into a prostitute’s bedchamber. “And virgins are for Christmas,” adds Miss Havisham succinctly. This would all feel more iconoclastic – more playful – if it weren’t so in keeping with the cynical direction of the modern period drama.

All the same, there’s a lot to enjoy about this Great Expectations. It has, at its heart, a fabulously entertaining story (all credit Mr Dickens), which is beautifully mounted on Sonja Klaus’s production design, and atmospherically shot by Dan Atherton. The marshes of the Thames estuary haven’t looked this good since, well, The Essex Serpent. As with all the best Dickens adaptations, the conveyor belt of supporting characters are excellently cast, with talent ranging from comic performers like Matt Berry and Tim Key, to stalwarts of British television like Hayley Squires and Johnny Harris.

But the truth is that this adaptation of the great novel is needless and lazy. It has been scarcely over a decade since the BBC’s last lavish spin on the tale, and so, even with the infusion of sex and violence and post-colonial theory, it is hard to feel excited about this new take. With all this lack of imagination or interest in new ideas, it seems like Miss Havisham’s clocks are not the only thing frozen in time.