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    Olivia Colman on playing her latest mother monster: “My little girl wouldn’t cuddle me.”

    Janet Manley

    March 20, 2023, 5:58am

    Olivia Colman’s mother characters have often concealed a spike beneath their smiley, feminine exteriors.

    There was the stepmother from hell in Fleabag—the kind of monster who mounts a sexhibition with a wall of plaster penises showcasing those of both your father and ex-boyfriend. Then there was Elena Ferrante’s Leda in the big-screen adaptation of The Lost Daughter; a mother who commits the ultimate crime of leaving her children, but also of stealing a child’s doll (symbolism!). And Colman’s Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown was bad in that she was the brusque kind of mother who placed her country, and her legacy, above her own children’s happiness, memorably telling Prince Charles that “no one wants to hear” his voice.

    Now, Colman is giving Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham the special treatment in the Hulu/FX adaptation of Great Expectations.

    The very Gothic Miss Havisham is described in the novel as a waxwork of spite, withering in the bridal dress she has worn since the day she was jilted. Nothing about her is maternal, but as mothers go, she looms large.

    After being jilted, Havisham adopts a toddler, Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin), and raises her as a weapon to use against men. That seems to be the day’s work: walking around dusty old Satis House looking like a decorative soap and dictating Victorian customs to her mean, young charge, Estella, on whom she neatly imprints. Really, she’s the ultimate homeschooler, creating Estella’s education from scratch and dosing it with just the right amount of conspiracy.

    She also works as a stand-in for society’s tendency to blame mothers for their children’s outcomes. Havisham is an art monster whose art (an elaborate sort of vengeance) takes precedence over her child. It’s not a healthy portrait of motherhood, let’s say. Colman’s Havisham is blanched in her yellowing dress, with bleached eyebrows (Brune-Franklin’s are too; like mother, like daughter). Together, they look a real fright.

    “My little girl wouldn’t cuddle me for the entire duration of the shoot until I could dye my eyebrows back,” Colman told the press corps in a recent event.

    The delicate, predatory Colman voice you know and fear is there in her character, as are the big round eyes asking you to feel sorry for her. Early on, that seems a tall ask. In episode one, Havisham brings Estella and Pip—her new playmate—together then tells them, with a mouth full of rotten teeth, “I want to see you play.” You’d almost rather just become a child laborer down the forge.

    It wouldn’t be Dickens without someone yearning for parents. Pip (played by Tom Sweet and Fionn Whitehead), our main character, is an orphan pottering by the graves of his parents when a convict in leg irons jumps him, setting the plot in motion. In the novel, Pip is raised by his horrible sister and her sweet, simple husband Joe, the blacksmith, but remains possessed by the ideal he has in mind of his true guardian, embarrassed by Joe and repulsed by the unpolished benefactor, Magwitch, who turned him into a “gentleman” (“It was I wot did it!”).

    Of all the surrogates, the condensed plot of the 2023 miniseries most favors Havisham. She shapes Pip by shutting him into a bedroom with a prostitute, having Estella whip his little white working-class bottom, and letting him believe that Estella would one day become part of his estate. No wonder he winds up at the opium den.

    For what it’s worth, Estella’s life is also ruined in the process of teaching the blacksmith’s boy a lesson; her upbringing is an exercise in the transmission of generational trauma. If the work of today’s mother (again, fathers are not held to the same standards) is to understand her upbringing, and to diffuse the harmful elements in rearing her own children, Havisham goes completely the other direction, doing it all for spite.

    “Poor Estella was sort of screwed from the outset really,” Colman told Literary Hub. “A shame.”

    The moment she was deserted on her wedding day by Compeyson, Havisham had two roads from which to choose, Colman went on. “She could have washed her hands of him and moved on, given her and Estella a much nicer life. But, back in those days of the really full-on patriarchy, they were stuck.”

    The costuming reflects the idea of the stunted mother figure. “It’s a shame you never get to see [the costume] really clearly in broad daylight, but it literally looks like it’s mold growing up it and you can see her heart is rotting,” said Colman, “and I love that.” She looks the demented bride of patriarchy, a system that tends, in the Dickensian realm, to punish the good and pure of heart, who toil in the lower classes. She would also be a good Halloween costume for the mother who is lost in a gnarled ghost of her younger self.

    Not every one is a gargoyle, though. It was Dickens’ own mother, Elizabeth Dickens, who taught him to read, and she has been folded into Great Expectations’ Biddy (Laurie Ogden), the gentle, down-to-earth neighbor who teaches Pip French. In the Hulu adaptation, Biddy is everything Havisham isn’t: technicolor, pink-cheeked, drenched in sun, ample of bosom!, poor but honest, smiling her Hobbiton smile.

    The veteran Great Expectations reader will know that Havisham suffers for her abuse (via Estella) of Pip, her “model with a mechanical heart to practice on.” “I stole her heart away and put ice in its place,” the regretful mother tells him, too late to rectify her mistakes.

    How the Hulu production resolves this dissonance—the challenge of mothers good and bad!—remains to be seen. What is modern about Colman’s is the benefit of the doubt offered to the old recluse that perhaps she isn’t the biggest monster in the book. Beneath the reams of aging crinoline, she still hides a weapon, but Colman is very good at convincing you to take her side against the other forms of malevolence. That’s why this is good casting.

    Great Expectations premieres on Hulu on March 26.

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