Steven Knight creates very dark shows, and the world of TV has stumbled into greatness because of it. Series like Peaky Blinders provided showcase exposure for highly talented performers. In many cases, those fringe players moved onto superstardom. However, Knight’s aesthetics will push some audiences away from his messages. Rarely has this been more evident than in Great Expectations, a new limited series releasing on FX. Even with star power like Olivia Colman and Fionn Whitehead on board, Great Expectations becomes a slog. Knight’s approach to Dickens’s grotesque and grimy world drowns out any chance for enjoyable television.
Based on the famed novel by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations follows Pip (Whitehead/Tom Sweet). The young orphan lives with his aunt (Hayley Squires) and uncle (Owen McDonnell) but does not want to follow in the footsteps as a blacksmith. However, when a local merchant (Matt Berry) brings up an opportunity to provide companionship for a young lady, Pip stands a chance to change his fortune. Under the tutelage of Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) and Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin), Pip learns the basics of becoming a gentleman. Soon, he’s taken as an apprentice for Jaggers (Ashley Thomas), a lawyer willing to do whatever is necessary to advance his interests.
The dark tone of Great Expectations embraces the more disturbing imagery of Dickensian literature from the start. The violence and literal mud caked onto every character brings the harsher realities of the time to life. This has value, but the storytelling skews towards a cynicism that becomes too hard to shake. For every positive development for Pip or any character, this version of Great Expectations relays a dozen moments of pure villainy.
This is where your familiarity with Knight’s style ultimately comes into play. He has long embraced a more unsavory, upsetting style in storytelling. Knight and collaborator Tom Hardy often enjoy digging into the darkness of their stories. Hardy only serves as a producer here, but Great Expectations leans into Taboo‘s dramatic and visual stylings. Their team has established their brand, but the questions remain about who will enjoy this story.
One could argue that the style allows for excellent artisan work. Knight’s other Dickensian adaptation, A Christmas Carol in 2019, very much leaned into the frightening elements of that story. In that regard, the team leaned into a disheveled and wild look for Miss Havisham. This visual sticks in your mind, especially when combined with the electric performance from Colman. However, based on the screenplay and visual motifs, this version of Havisham feels like a child molester and less of an oddball benefactor.
Another issue is the amount of time we linger in this world. Unlike the Christmas Carol adaptation, Knight’s Great Expectations run nearly six hours. This increasing cynicism grows challenging to sit through, making for a restless experience. The story is already slow and requires consistent scenes for other characters. This helps it feel like a complete story and drags out the runtime.
Even if the performances were all top-tier, this version of Great Expectations depends entirely on your opinion of other Steven Knight projects. This embraces all his best attributes while showcasing some of his worst as a storyteller. The cynical approach to Great Expectations should exist, but this one becomes so bleak you’ll question what the point of the story ever was. Dickens’ storytelling remains highly relevant in a world of economic inequality. However, this descent into darkness does little to sell its strongest ideas.