She is more than a character; she is a symbol.
To say the name Miss Havisham not only conjures up Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” but the living specter of grief itself.
Gillian Anderson stars as the heartbroken Miss Havisham in PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” adaptation of “Great Expectations,” airing in two parts on Sunday, April 1 and 8 (check local listings).
Though Anderson has white hair, she looks spooked, not ancient, as Miss Havisham is usually portrayed. Time stopped for her when she was jilted at her wedding; she became a living ghost when the future she expected didn’t happen.
Miss Havisham floats around in her tattered wedding gown in her crumbling mansion. Rats have nibbled at her wedding cake, and she exists in a secular limbo between life and death.
“A lot of people have done Miss Havisham,” Anderson tells Zap2it. “She is so specifically drawn. I think her journey is so tragic and yet recognizable. We are dealing with her having a broken heart, assuming this particular journey of torture.”
Produced with the BBC and shot in England, this version perfectly captures Dickens’ world. Set in the early 19th century, the film has the faded opulence of Miss Havisham’s world and the grim desperation of Pip’s as he lives with his nasty older sister and her husband, a good-natured blacksmith.
“I think a story like ‘Great Expectations’ just begs to be done in its time because the whole — two of the storylines, one being Miss Havisham’s story that it is a woman who has gone mad because she was left at the altar, and the story of a young man who starts out as a good kid and thinks he is going to get a lot of money from this Miss Havisham and falls in love with this young girl and goes off in completely the wrong direction only to be redeemed in the end — that’s a very 19th-century story. So I think that’s why it needs to stay in the period,” Rebecca Eaton, “Masterpiece” executive producer, says at a press conference.
Miss Havisham adopts Estella (Vanessa Kirby) and manipulates a friendship between her and a local lad, Pip (Douglas Booth).
Booth and Kirby, who play the grown-up versions of Pip and Estella, have fond memories of reading “Great Expectations” as kids. Anderson first read the book while preparing for this film.
“The richness,” Booth says. “I can smell it. I can hear it. You can feel it. I revisited it for the production and fell in love with it all over again.”
Kirby, whose father first read her “Great Expectations” while she sat on his knee, has reread it many times since.
“This is not about how people look or how people are but a love story,” says Kirby, who is a beautiful blonde, as opposed to the plain brunette on-screen. “This is a one-of-kind love, but they are teenagers and can’t be together. Estella’s been taught who she is, and Pip has lost himself.
“Doug is totally divine-looking, but he’s not in love with her for the looks,” Kirby continues.
Kirby, who plays Romeo in an upcoming version of Shakespeare’s classic, acknowledges that a younger Miss Havisham could surprise people.
“This woman has been broken,” Kirby says. “She is young and could have a house full of children, and this so much more tragic.”
Miss Havisham’s bitterness and madness are indeed tragic.
“We all choose to move on with our lives and process the grief in various ways,” Anderson says. “I am sure there are people who have wanted to lock themselves in and never come out.”
As a woman of means, Miss Havisham was able to adopt Estella despite the fact that her parents were alive. Miss Havisham’s calculating cruelty to Pip and manipulation of Estella’s emotions are chilling.
“Pip is a very naive, impressionable boy at the beginning,” Booth says. “He falls in love with Estella and what she represents. He is impressionable and loses his way. He is naive, and people are eager to self-improve. He gets all this money, and in fairness to him, everything he’s doing is to be with Estella. He does lose his way. He sticks by Miss Havisham. He is very loyal.”
As broken as Miss Havisham is and as strong as Estella seems, the elder has an iron core to her madness, while Estella is more fragile.
“She is a child born of two convicts and abused by this abused woman herself,” Kirby says. “I hope we made her vulnerable.”
Estella is indeed vulnerable, and Miss Havisham is ethereal, particularly because of the small, spacey voice Anderson gives her. The voice formed her characterization, Anderson says.
“Slowly, when I initially read a script I either hear the voice of the character or not,” Anderson says. “And if not, I don’t take it. After, it is all about layers, adding to the voice.”
Anderson confides that she had no alternative had the director not liked her approach.
“Very often you put your heart and soul into something, and not often you feel like it has all come together, and so often my heart has sunk when watching something for the first time,” Anderson says. “I am so proud to be a part of this.”