Great Expectations: Miss Havisham given 'youthful' air

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations Gillian Anderson portrays Miss Havisham as both tragic and consumed by the need for revenge

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Tortured, ghostly, eternal bride-to-be Miss Havisham is returning in a fresh screen adaptation of Charles Dickens' literary classic Great Expectations.

The wealthy heiress, who was jilted on her wedding day and lived as a recluse for decades afterwards, haunts her tumbledown mansion clad in a dusty matrimonial gown.

Miss Havisham - with her white matted hair and wedding feast table preserved in cobwebs - has been played by older actresses in previous major incarnations.

Joan Hickson played her at the age of 75 in 1981, while Anne Bancroft was cast in a 1998 modern reworking of Dickens's story at the age of 67.

But for the new take on Great Expectations she is portrayed by Gillian Anderson, who at 43 is the youngest screen star to play the woman who casts a huge shadow over the life of Pip, hero of the tale.

"Dickens doesn't qualify Miss Havisham's age specifically. If you add up the numbers at the time, it makes sense she would have been about 37," explains Anderson.

HAVISHAMS ON FILM

Clockwise: Maxine Audley, Joan Hickson, Helena Bonham Carter and Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham
  • Florence Reed - 1934
  • Martita Hunt - 1946
  • Maxine Audley - 1967 (top left)
  • Margaret Leighton - 1974
  • Joan Hickson - 1981 (top right)
  • Jean Simmons - 1989
  • Anne Bancroft - 1998
  • Charlotte Rampling - 1999 (bottom left)
  • Gillian Anderson - 2011
  • Helena Bonham Carter - 2012 (bottom right)

The US-born star has no concerns that she is too young for the role.

"This is me, at this age, this actress being hired for a particular reason and honouring that. I'm not going to say: 'I'm not doing this because you should have hired an older actress.'"

Her unnerving interpretation of the tragic yet cruel Havisham is ghostly, ashen-faced and becomes craggier as the story progresses - but did not rely on any ageing prosthetics.

Anderson's transformation took less than two hours when Havisham was shown at her most decayed.

"I had an idea for a grey which I didn't think existed," says Anderson of her contribution to the character's look.

"There was a specific grey I felt her hair should be, which they were able to find. It's kind of opaque and translucent but at the same time holds light. It's not white, it's not too grey, it's just this middle non-colour."

Anderson's Havisham floats disconcertingly around her mothballed home, where the clocks are stopped at the moment when she was jilted and her wedding cake is being feasted on by mice.

Her lips are desiccated and she claws her skin at moments of stress, while dark circles frame her eyes.

'Heartbroken mess'

The actress, known for her long-running role in The X-Files, maintains that she did not go back to previous portrayals of Miss Havisham for guidance.

"My fear is always I've been taking on something else that already exists. So I deliberately haven't gone through other versions or even old line drawings.

"I'm fascinated by the previous incarnations but will try not to compare. My intention is to be as close to my first impression of her," Anderson explains, adding that she will end her moratorium after seeing her own performance.

The actress has not seen images of a Miss Havisham to follow her own, played by Helena Bonham Carter in a film version of Great Expectations to be released next year.

Stars of the BBC's new adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations on the story's continuing relevance

When told that Bonham Carter is festooned by cobwebs and will be something of a Hannibal Lecteresque monster, Anderson says: "I'm not a purist - there's room for all of it!"

She adds: "I'm sure there'll be positives and negatives about both adaptations from all perspectives."

While Miss Havisham's physical appearance seems at the heart of on-screen portrayals, her character and story are important.

She declares that "love is death" and seems hell bent on revenge - but is a figure to be pitied, says Anderson.

"Her personal pain is played out and at times she is an absolutely heartbroken mess," says the actress.

In equal measure she brands Miss Havisham "psychotically manipulative", a woman who has the power to damage both Pip and her adopted daughter Estella.

Anderson adds that this character's tragic side needs to be explored alongside her scheming nature "to avoid losing the television audience really quickly".

Period roles

Returning to the theme of being a young Havisham, the actress explains that it makes her relatively close in age to the grown-up Pip.

"There is still hope for her, which makes it interesting not having her portrayed as an old hag."

After years as sceptical FBI agent Dana Scully, Anderson, who spent some of her childhood in the UK, has recently made a name for herself in period pieces.

Vanessa Kirby as Estella and Douglas Booth as Pip in Great Expectations Estella and Pip are enmeshed in the web of bitterness spun by Miss Havisham

She garnered a Bafta nomination for playing Lady Dedlock in Dickens' Bleak House, and was almost unrecognisable as brothel owner Mrs Castaway in The Crimson Petal and The White.

"You can write that down! It's good to know it's working," laughs Anderson when told of her ability to transform.

She says there may be more costume roles, should they make her "feel I can contribute something".

As for a return of The X-Files, Anderson says it is all down to US network Fox.

"If Fox are the gods, then it's in the lap of the gods," says the actress who brings a touch of youthful bloom to one of literature's most enduring characters.

Great Expectations begins on Tuesday 27 December at 21:00 GMT on BBC One and continues on 28 and 29 December.

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