Monstrous Expectations

When Holliday Grainger first read Great Expectations, she was quite young, she says, and didn’t really ”get” Estella, the beautiful, aloof young woman with whom the narrator has been in love since childhood. A second reading gave her a greater sense of how the character had come to be who she was.

Holliday Grainger plays 'the emotional version of Frankenstein's monster' in Great Expectations.

And by playing her, in the new screen version directed by Mike Newell, she came to see Estella very clearly. In some ways, Grainger says, ”She’s the emotional version of Frankenstein’s monster”.

Estella is the subject of a kind of experiment by Miss Havisham, the wealthy recluse who adopted her and shaped her from her earliest years, ”and she is very damaged, a victim of emotional abuse – even though I don’t think that was Miss Havisham’s intention”.

Costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor created clothes for Estella that mirror who she is, Grainger says: ”A shell that you can never quite crack. Elaborate, composed. I love the fact that she has quite hard lines.”

For Grainger, Estella ”has a lot of anger and resentment inside her, I think, but she is also passive, and probably has very little confidence in herself, which is why she always reverts to the facade.” In a scene in which she is offered the chance to leave Miss Havisham, ”It’s a lot easier for her to stay. If she left she would have to unlearn all the self-restraint she has spent her whole life developing.”

Grainger has thought, too, about things that have happened to Estella that the novel doesn’t elaborate on, aspects that are implied, rather than shown. ‘‘I have an idea of her in my head that I thoroughly enjoyed creating and performing. Whether anyone else would agree with me, I don’t know,” she says, dissolving into laughter.

Grainger has had her fair share of period pieces recently: roles in Bel Ami, Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina, as well as three seasons in the TV series The Borgias, as Lucrezia Borgia. ”It’s such a meaty, strong role, I feel thankful every time the scripts come through, being able to play that character.” She is also thankful, she says, for flexible producers, who made it possible for her to make Great Expectations and Anna Karenina while The Borgias was being shot.

She’s not sure yet whether there will be a fourth season, and meanwhile is preparing to play an American for the first time. ”And not just any American character,” she says. ”It’s Bonnie Parker!” She will star in the mini-series Bonnie and Clyde: Dead and Alive, to be directed by Bruce Beresford, with Emile Hirsch as Clyde Barrow.

There’s a realistic and a surreal element to its approach, she says. Her preparation has involved reading biographies, including one written by Parker’s family, ”and it’s very different from Faye Dunaway’s portrayal [in the 1967 movie], and also of the version in our script”. It’s interesting do research, she says, even though the focus for her is always what’s in the script. At the same time, she says, ”You’ll always end up filling out a character. It might be with aspects of yourself,” but sometimes it comes from reading around the subject.

One aspect of the character she’s familiar with already: ”Bonnie Parker, in our script, wants to be a movie star,” Grainger says, and she knows that the sense of ”putting on a face and being someone for a day” is going to be an important aspect of who she is.

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