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Girl fight! Eccentric actresses battle it out in competing Dickens adaptations.

July 5, 2011

Not so long ago Helena Bonham Carter would have made a lovely Estella.

Okay, nobody has ever considered Miss Havisham, the man-hating spinster in Great Expectations, a girl. But it should be fun watching a pair of surprisingly youthful performers take on the challenge in rival productions. My money’s on Helena Bonham Carter.

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Carter will be Miss Havisham in a feature film version of Dickens’ greatest novel, while Gillian Anderson, who’s oddly but credibly transformed herself  into a British actress since “The X-Files,” takes on the role in a television mini-series.

For her part, Carter has spent the last twenty years obscuring her off-beat natural beauty with a series of quirky roles combined with the off-screen fashion sense of a hippie who just emerged from a long stint in a lunatic asylum.

When I read the book, the Miss Havisham in my mind was older and somewhat corpulent. Carter, 45, and Anderson, 42, are both slender and still capable of playing relatively youthful and sexy parts.

I expect Carter, who looks ever more like a deranged pixie with each new role, will emphasize Miss Havisham’s sly, cackling evil, while Anderson will likely give a glimpse of the character’s wounded vulnerability. Both are subtle and inventive performers.

It should also be fun comparing dueling players in other key roles. Magwitch, the escaped convict aided by the reluctant Pip, will be played by Joseph Fiennes in the movie, and by Ray Winstone in the miniseries.

I failed to find a single photo that makes Gillian Anderson look old, crazy or unwholesome. Sorry.

Anyone who saw Fiennes’ irresolute turn as the alcoholic FBI agent in “Flashforward” will probably nod in agreement when I say that Winstone, who specializes in vicious mobsters, ruthless cops and cruel centurions, will eat Joe’s lunch while the poor fellow cries for his Mommy.

For comparison purposes, Martita Hunt was 50 when she played Miss Havisham in the 1946 version, Charlotte Rampling was 53 in a 1999 miniseries, and Margaret Leighton was 52 in the 1974 movie that featured Michael York as Pip, Sarah Miles of Estella and James Mason as Magwich.

The miniseries is scheduled to air at Christmas in Britain, and I would be very surprised if PBS doesn’t snatch it up for Masterpiece Theatre or something. The film comes out in 2012 to coincide with the bicentennial celebration of Dickens’ birth.

We can probably look for a flurry of Dickens adaptations over the next year or two. One known production is “Twisted,” a series being developed for Sky Television by crime writer Martina Cole that supposedly updates Oliver Twist as a modern-day gangster drama.

Sounds like a wretched idea, doesn’t it? Could be fun, though. After all, the 1998 film version of Great Expectations, with Ethan Hawk  Gwynneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft and Robert DeNiro, not only updated but also Americanized the story, and it wasn’t as awful as it should have been. But then, it was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, one of our best filmmakers.

In any event, of all Dickens’ novels, Oliver Twist is the one I’d most like to see be given a full-bore, historically authentic film or TV treatment — and for a fairly wicked reason. It’s certainly not for Oliver, a hero so unremittingly sweet and good I want to hurt his feelings and push him out a window. “No, you can’t have any more!”

In fact, if Oliver had been dropped from the narrative entirely, leaving the Artful Dodger to step into his rightful place as hero, then Oliver Twist, not Great Expectations, would be Dickens’ greatest novel. Of course, about that title…

No, my love for Oliver Twist has to do with quite possibly the greatest villain in English prose fiction. I’m speaking of course of that heartless hood,  Bill Sykes. I’d love to see who they’d cast in that role. My vote goes to Philip Glenister, a great British character actor perhaps best known on these shores as Gene Hunt, the rules-defying police detective in the “Ashes to Ashes” series on BBC America.

Aw, man. In my next life I want to be a casting director…

Meanwhile, which Miss Havisham would you prefer to see: Helena Bonham Carter or Gillian Anderson?


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Vicki permalink
    July 5, 2011 2:10 pm

    Carter. Totally. I never thought of Miss Havisham as corpulent or unattractive, but rather as someone who is psychotically depressed and angry. No doubt our fair Helena will do her justice. Gillian Anderson would play her completely differently, and you’re right that it will be interesting to see which one does it better.
    I also agree that Bill Sykes is the greatest villian in British prose fiction. I like how you phrased that so as to eliminate Shakespeare’s villians. Miss Havisham and Bill Sykes are, to me, Dickens two greatest inventions, but my how that man could make up some characters! I, for one, will be celebrating 200 years with Dickens next year!

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 5, 2011 2:30 pm

    How perceptive you are! I did indeed choose my phrasing carefully so as to exclude comparison with Shakespeare’s villains. Bravo.

  3. July 5, 2011 8:11 pm

    Carter Carter Carter hands down. And I can hardly wait.

    Oliver Twist in my humble opinion is one of the best/ worst novels Dickens ever wrote. The slum scenes work wonderfully. The uptown sweetest family in the world is sentimentally barfy to the max. Bring on the sadistic Miss.Havisham.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 5, 2011 11:40 pm

      Oh, but I do love Bill Sykes. He’s real human villainy, sweaty and grasping and homicidal. I really wanted something bad to happen to Oliver. He’s there just to satisfy bourgeois expectations. Dickens — of all people! — knew better.

      Yes, Carter hands down. But I was crushing on Anderson a little bit this morning while selecting a picture. Be still my middle-aged heart… I’m sure her interpretation will have its insight, too.

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