With their wonderful, ornate prose and vivid imagery, Charles Dickens’ novels seem ideally suited to cinema adaptations. David Lean realized this potential magnificently with his atmospheric 1946 version of Great Expectations. Less successful was Alfonso Cuaron’s miscalculated modern day version of Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Robert de Niro. The latest adaptation of this novel, from British director Mike Newell, efficiently distils Dickens’ sprawling tale of social mobility amid the mud and squalor of 18th century London to its humanist essentials but doesn’t captivate like the David Lean version.
Great Expectations tells the story of the poor, orphaned blacksmith’s apprentice Pip (played as a child by Toby Irvine and as an adult by his brother Jeremy Irvine) and the strange series of benefactors who change the course of his life. Although happy as a blacksmith in the foreboding marshes of Northern England, Pip still wishes for knowledge of a wider world. After a series of bizarre etiquette lessons from the cadaverous Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) and her refined but creepy daughter Estella, Pip yearns to be part of the upper class. The opportunity to ditch his working class roots arrives when he’s mysteriously given the financial means to go to London and live as a gentleman. Little does he suspect that behind his good fortune are mysterious characters from his past and a potentially dangerous web of secrets.
Great Expectations is as much a sociological exploration of people on the different rungs of society as it is a drama or romance. While the poor in Dickens’ tale are battered and downtrodden, they still maintain some degree of nobility; the heroes in this story are the escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) whom Pip first meets as a child in the local graveyard and Pip’s good-hearted brother in law Joe (Jason Flemyng). The wealthy, though, are monstrous figures such as the haggard, bitter Miss Havisham, the ridiculous roistering gentleman known as the Finches whom Pip joins and Pip’s greedy, muttoned-chopped relatives who look like something out of Coles funny picture book. Not surprisingly Little Britain’s David Walliams is perfectly suited to the role of Pip’s callous, foppish Uncle Pumblechook.
With a couple of exceptions, performances in this film are very fine. Ralph Fiennes is, despite an outrageous mullet, excellent as Magwitch, evoking both sympathy and menace. Robbie Coltrane as the lawyer Jaggers figures more prominently than in other adaptations and delivers one of the film’s best performances. Jason Flemyng is also moving as the decent and kindly Joe. Helena Bonham Carter seems to be making a habit of playing wild-haired apparitions as she turns Miss Havisham into a crazed, ghostly creature. She’s generally magnetic on screen but at times she’s too loopy here. Jeremy Irvine doesn’t display the necessary charisma to compete with the older stars which makes Pip a less interesting character than he should be.
While Dickens’ themes of poverty and socio-economic oppression resonate across the centuries some of the attitudes in Great Expectations have dated like the depiction of women who in this film are crazed harridans, conniving temptresses or pretty accessories for the men.
Visually the film is attractive if not stunning as it mixes raw naturalistic scenes of the marshlands with hazy dream like flashbacks.
This latest version of Great Expectations contains some powerful, moving and at times funny sequences but lacks the spark or unique style to place it with the classic Dickens adaptations.
Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.
Director(s): Mike Newell.
Release date: 7th March 2013
Running time: 128 mins.
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