Directed by: Mike Newell.
Written by: David Nicholls based on the novel by Charles Dickens.
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter (Miss Havisham), Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch), Jason Flemyng (Joe Gargery), Jeremy Irvine (Pip), Holliday Grainger (Estella), Robbie Coltrane (Mr. Jaggers), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Joe), Ewen Bremner (Wemmick), Olly Alexander (Herbert Pocket), Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Bentley Drummle), Helena Barlow (Young Estella), Toby Irvine (Young Pip).
I have no idea how many screen versions of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations have been made, or even how many of those versions I’ve seen – but I do know I’ve seen quite a few. The ones that stand out in my mind are David Lean’s classic 1946 version, which will probably always be the definitive version, a BBC version that I had to sit through in 8th grade that bored me to tears at the time (and why the hell we watched it remains a mystery to me, since we never read the book) and Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 version, which brought the story to modern times, which was visually astounding, although dramatically had mixed results. When you adapt a book as well-known as Great Expectations that has already been adapted numerous times the pressure has to be on to try and go in some bold new direction with the material. This is probably why Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) left so many disappointed – it was a simple a solid, respectable adaptation of the Dickens’ classic, and nothing more. The same can be said for Mike Newell’s version of Great Expectations. It certainly doesn’t invent the wheel here, it really brings nothing new or exciting in its interpretation of the Dickens’ classic – but it is a solid, respectful, well-acted and well-made version of the story we know so well.
Young Pip (Toby Irvine) is mourning the loss of his family in the graveyard when he meets an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes), who when he discovers Pip is being raised by the blacksmith, demands he show up the next morning with tools that will cut him free of the shackles – which he does. And even though the convict is later caught – right before Pip’s eyes – neither he nor Pip reveal that they met each other before. Then Pip comes to the attention of Miss Havisham – a woman living in the past, who keeps her magnificent house in the same décor as her wedding day, when she was jilted, and refuses to change out of her wedding dress. She is raising young Estella (Helena Barlow) – and wants Pip for a playmate for her. What she really wants though is to teach Estella to be a heartless shrew – a beautiful woman, who will break the hearts of men, just like hers was broken. And Pip is to be the first test. And when Miss Havisham later cruelly dismisses Pip, and he can no longer see Estella, his heart truly is broken. Years pass, and Pip is training as an apprentice to his brother in law Joe (Jason Flemyng), the blacksmith, when a lawyer named Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) shows up at their door. It seems Pip has come into some money – the source of which is to remain anonymous – and he is to go to London and become a “gentleman”. Pip sees this as his chance to get Estella, once and for all – and quickly, and cruelly, leaves Joe behind.
This version of Great Expectations is pretty much what you would expect. It is a triumph of production design. Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion is beautifully rendered, and the streets of London are muddier than in most other versions you’ve seen. Newell does underline the cruelty in the story – about how both Pip and Estella are essentially abused children, whose lives are forever warped because of the adults in their lives – notably Miss Havisham – who so lost in her own wounds, cruelly lashes out at the children, and by extension the world.
And the performances are quite good as well. Helena Bonham Carter is a gifted actress, and a natural choice to play Miss Havisham – especially since in recent years, she has pretty much worked exclusively with her partner Tim Burton in bringing forth weird, strangely made up, cruel characters (or starring in the Harry Potter films, and acting as if she was still in a Burton film). Her Miss Havisham is not an object of pity in this version, but a cruelly dismissive woman – one who knows the heartbreak she is setting in motion, and quite simply doesn’t care. It is a fine performance by Bonham Carter – although I must say I wish she would play a normal character once in a while. She doesn’t have to take on every strange role does she? Ralph Fiennes is even better as the convict – especially in his early scenes, when caked with mud, he seems almost to be channeling Daniel Day-Lewis, and the terror he causes poor Pip is palpable. Jason Flemyng is the film’s most sympathetic character as poor Joe – who tries his best, and is really a hard-working, nice guy, who still gets screwed over. Adding color, mainly in the background, is Robbie Coltrane as the seemingly jovial Jaggers, Sally Hawkins as the shrill, comically abusive “Mrs. Joe”, Ewen Bremmer as Jaggers’ assistant and Olly Alexander as Pip’s friend Herbert. The supporting cast in the movie is superb – and helps to keep proceedings from bogging down.
Unfortunately, this version of Great Expectations suffers from some of the same problems that many do – essentially that the two apparent leads, Pip (played as an adult by Jeremy Irvine) and Estella (played by Holliday Grainger) seem rather dull compared to those around them. Pip is a little shit, who needs to learn a lesson – and he does – but his mooning after Estella doesn’t feel real. Perhaps that’s because as Estella, Grainger gives us nothing but her beauty to real feel anything for. She’s barely a character at all.
Yet despite this, I liked Mike Newell’s film. It is entertaining, superbly directed and designed, and for the most part wonderfully acted. Plus there is a reason why this story is so well known – it’s great – and I had no problem slipping back into this world originally created by Dickens, and brought to life in the movie. Does it add anything new to our understanding of the novel? Not really. But it’s a fine, respectable adaptation.
Note: I wrote this review based on a screening at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival – as far as I know, the film didn’t undergo any editing after that screening, but it still felt like something I should point out.