Olivia Colman Reigns in Steven Knight’s Dismal Reimagining of ‘Great Expectations’

Going gritty can mean many things. Sometimes it can elevate certain material to a riveting, powerful degree. Other times it can feel like the filmmaker misunderstands what gritty actually means and is just going for a lot of grain and overcast skies. The latter seems to be the mindset behind Hulu’s “Great Expectations,” which wants to make the Charles Dickens classic appealing to modern audiences by upping the grime. It is true that his novels were and remain unforgettable portraits of 19th century proletarian life in England. Yet, this take on the material, from “Peaky Blinders” writer Steven Knight, mistakes realism for much snarling and yelling. Despite that, the cast is rather stellar and shines in multiple noteworthy scenes.

While Knight takes a few liberties with the adaptation, the core plot remains the same. It begins with young Pip (Tom Sweet) toiling away in a blacksmith shop where the peasants have no future. He’s an orphan under the care of older sister, Sarah (Hayley Squires), and her husband, Joe (Owen McDonnell). Pip gets his first taste of the wider world when he comes across an escaped convict who he aids with food and by unshackling his chains. When the local authorities eventually find the runaway killer, Pip also gets one of his first lessons in not snitching. His life takes another turn when a representative of the very wealthy Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) visits with an offer. Miss Havisham, a recluse after being left at the altar, wants a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella (Chloe Lea). She will pay Sarah and Joe for every visit Pip makes. It is the initiation of what will be Pip’s perilous journey from the bottom of society to flirting with its very top.

This version of “Great Expectations” takes out any hints of humor or irony, instead focusing on the premise that the world is very, very dark. Dickens’ book has been adapted before into some great films, like David Lean’s 1946 version. In 1998, Alfonso Cuarón directed a modern day, elegant Gen X take, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. That one had some genuinely romantic moments and turned the narrative into a parable about the struggling artist rising above classism. Knight’s “Great Expectations” isn’t quite sure what it wants to say with the story, aside from just framing it as something moody and unwashed. Co-produced with the BBC, the sets and photography are efficient, even if they are drained of most color. Events get pumped up for limited series length, so there are exploding ships and convicts with decayed teeth brawling in the first episode, despite this having no relevance to the later development of the plot. The score, by Keefus Ciancia, is all screeching, moody industrial strings borrowed from “Joker.”

Because the cast is excellent the performances are what have the most life. Olivia Colman is a perfect fit for the sad, maddened Miss Havisham, playing the role with manic eyes and a soft, trembling tone. This is the decayed version of her queen from “The Favourite.” As Pip grows older he’s played by a well-cast Fionn Whitehead, who has the necessary melancholy of an outsider discovering how to move around a complex world. He comes under the sway of Jaggers (Ashley Thomas), who represents the interests of a mysterious benefactor (who you already know if you’ve read the book and seen the other movies). They have good chemistry as they work together to help Pip ascend and take on the spice business of a rich marriage prospect for the grown Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin). Brune-Franklin is also strong as the young woman who forever owns Pip’s peasant heart, and is psychologically ruined by Miss Havisham, who wants to raise her to be a proper, cold-hearted monster as her own revenge against being heartbroken.

As with many other adaptations of this kind, “Great Expectations” feels too long and airless with its cloudy spirit, because it could have also just been a good movie. Even lengthy novels work as tight films because what is conveyed on the page can come to life with one or two powerful images. There have been some noteworthy exceptions from the BBC, such as their 2016 “War & Peace.” But here Dickens drags when it should have more life to it. Grittiness doesn’t mean meandering. A work of art can be full of grime and blood while being a riveting experience. Even Dickens’ language gets reduced to lots of spitting and fists pounding tables. The great classics endure because they still have a way of speaking to us in our own time, and this Dickens story certainly can, if it wasn’t pretending to be nasty instead of being the real thing.

Great Expectations” begins streaming March 26 with new episodes premiering Sundays on FX on Hulu.