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Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review - Great Expectations

This month, I dug into my Netflix account instead of opting to review the latest superhero or dooms-day flick. I’ve been a bit disappointed with this summer’s Hollywood fare, so I haven’t ventured to the theater as much as I normally do this time of year. But thankfully, the English and their BBC productions of classic stories are always there to entertain, never falling short of excellent. Superbly written, directed, and usually (but not always) devoid of gratuitous sexual content and foul language, they stand the test of time, appealing to all generations. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is one such story that has been dramatized in abundance, with the most recent being a 2012 theatrical release starring Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter (yet to screen in the US for some reason). The version I stumbled upon is a 2011 BBC mini-series which aired on Masterpiece Classic earlier this year. I was delighted to find that it gives a more complete rendition of the book than the other adaptations produced over the years.
            Starring Douglas Booth, Great Expectations chronicles the life of Pip, a poor orphaned boy whose life abruptly changes when unexpected fortune and opportunity come his way via an anonymous benefactor. Booth is great in the role and brings his smoldering good looks to the production, looking more like a Ralph Lauren model than a new, up-and-coming British actor. Set in nineteenth century England/London, the movie evokes a dark, Dickensian tone which includes a cast of unusual characters with even more unusual names such as Magwitch, Havisham, and Pumblechook. Great acting from Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson, and Jack Roth (Tim Roth’s son) adds to the production, as does the humor from Claire Rushbrook who plays Mrs. Joe. I never realized how tragic and sad the story is until watching this version. I remember reading the book years ago, but I didn’t pick up on the insidious evil from Mrs. Havisham until Gillian Anderson put flesh on her bones. Havisham is probably one of the literary world’s most wicked antagonists, striking an appall to the heart with her moth-eaten wedding gown and rat-infested wedding cake. I shudder to imagine how Dickens came up with such a character.
            The themes of loyalty, love, revenge, and forgiveness touch on Christian truths that are parabolic of the Lord’s teachings. When we first meet Pip, he is a kind-hearted, abused little boy who extends grace to an escaped convict, Magwitch (played by Winstone). At first, Magwitch appears to be a vicious felon but later redeems himself as a man unfairly condemned. He disappears quickly from the story but reappears later when the loose ends are nicely tied up. As Pip later discovers, the mercy and graciousness he showed Magwitch is instrumental in setting his life on a brand new course.
            At the same time, Pip’s desire for love and a better life make him the perfect victim for Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham is a wealthy lady who lives in a dusty, cob-web infested mansion, living out her days in a bizarre, insane stupor. Jilted at the altar years ago, Miss Havisham is grief, anger, bitterness, and revenge personified. She walks around barefoot looking as pale as a ghost and speaking in breathy half sentences that are almost zombie-like. Her hair is stark white and hasn’t been brushed in years and she still wears her dirty wedding gown—can’t imagine the smell that would come from such an existence! And to make matters worse, the dining room is covered in dust and filth, anchored by a rotting three tiered wedding cake. I remember being terrified of this lady when I was a young girl.
            In her quest for revenge, Miss Havisham adopts the beautiful Estella (played by Vanessa Kirby) and raises her to be a lovely, genteel lady with a heart of stone. Havisham’s goal is to trick some well-meaning young man into falling in love with Estella, only to purposefully break his heart in the process. This is where Pip fits into her evil plan. She invites him to the house to spend time with Estella, nurturing a friendship between the two. But then, at the moment she sees that the affection has blossomed into something more, she sends Estella off to London to find a respectable gentleman as a husband. Initially, Pip believes Miss Havisham has his best interests at heart but soon learns he was mistaken.
            The Havisham character is a wonderful depiction of an individual who harbors bitterness and anger in their heart, unable to forgive. Unforgiveness is like a poison, rotting the soul until it corrodes the body, bringing with it age, disease, and ultimately death. Jesus taught on the dangers of unforgiveness and the power and freedom that forgiveness brings. But sadly, like Miss Havisham, many make a different choice, desiring to wallow in grief and pity until they are destroyed. Pip understands this and finally confronts Havisham when he comes of age. As he so aptly explains, if she had allowed Pip and Estella to love each other, she could have filled her grand home with laughter and love. This cold, hard truth is more than Havisham can bear and is the beginning of her eventual demise. As so many have come to learn, the schemes of an evil man can never suppress the power of true love.
            Contrary to Havisham, Magwitch chooses to forgive others for what was taken from him. Instead of using Pip to exact revenge, he repays Pip for his kindness and desires to enrich his life with finances and opportunity. Magwitch learns to love and accepts his fate with peace in his heart, so unlike Miss Havisham. Magwitch sacrifices his own interests for the greater good, whereas Havisham embraces her doom with open arms, not caring who she takes with her. It makes one sad to realize there are many figurative Miss Havishams in the world hurtling toward their destruction, not knowing that death will not provide relief—it will only be the beginning of a greater, eternal misery. If they could only know the love of the Savior and the forgiveness that is available, free of charge, they could be delivered like Magwitch, no longer held captive by sin. It is a truth Pip and Estella come to realize in it fullness, enabling them to embark on a new life of love and freedom.
            I’m sure there are many more spiritual truths a savvy moviegoer can glean from this classic tale, but this is a good start. Enjoy this powerful story and share it with someone you know who needs a healthy dose of the Gospel message of grace.  

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