Great Expectations (2012) Film. Director : Mike Newell


Based on the Charles Dickens classic. Orphan Pip rises from humble beginnings thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Moving through London’s class-ridden world as a gentleman, Pip uses his new status to pursue Estella, a beautiful, heartless heiress he’s always loved. The shocking truth behind his fortune will have devastating consequences for everything he holds dear. –TIFF


 The Guardian,  September 2012 

‘Too plain pretty’ … Jeremy Irvine as Pip and Holliday Grainger as Estella in Great Expectations.

Great Expectations isn’t just Charles Dickens‘s best book. It’s also his soapiest. Of all the novels he wrote in instalments, it’s this that most graphically caters to the cliffhanger, drips with deadline sweat and amps up the action at every chapter’s close. So it takes a special type of talent to turn it into a film quite this flat

Mike Newell (of Four Weddings fame) must take the lion’s share of blame, but a chunk too should be saved for One Day’s David Nicholls, who supplies a York Notes adaptation, a bowdlerised whistlestop tour round keynote scenes. He appears to have extracted not just much of the book’s humour – early scenes with Mrs Joe (Sally Hawkins), Mr Joe (Jason Flemyng) and young Pip fall notably flat, despite David Walliams moonlighting as Pumblechook – but also its meat.

When Pip goes gent he skips ickily round some butchered cattle at Spitalfields and the whole movie mimics his distaste for heart and guts, muck and blood – in fact, in a way, for Dickens. (That said, it’s worth mentioning a final reel shot of remarkable gristle; the sort of thing that may linger more vividly in the minds of any 12-year-olds cadging on the classics than the actual plot.)

Only Ralph Fiennes‘s Leonard Rossiter-channelling Magwitch seems to have actually stepped from the pages; Helena Bonham Carter‘s eagerly-awaited Miss Havisham is a bit of a damp pancake. Where you want her to give it some welly, she tiptoes back from panto and fails to emerge from the shadows. If anything, she seems to have muted her workaday mad-haired, frock-horror romantic goth shtick.

Jeremy Irvine’s Pip – like Douglas Booth’s in the recent TV adaptation – is too plain pretty for the callow squit of the book. Scenes of sweaty blacksmithery could have been spliced from a Levis ad, while Holliday Grainger’s Estella, rather than a porcelain figurine, feels a much more modern dolly, the sort with big red hair and button on their backs that means they can squeak “I can’t feel anything” with wonky wink.

Newell’s film pulls off that rarest of tricks: by illuminating the book in such harsh light, you come away thinking the less of it. It is, on reflection, a novel of such high camp and fruitloop melodrama, that the David Lean treatment – monochrome, big on strings and fog – seems the only way to go. Even Ethan Hawke’s 1998 version had a certain trashy glamour. This simply feels superfluous.

Do we really need another film of Charles Dickens’ picaresque tale even in this bicentennial year?

It’s a book that is rarely done well in screen adaptations and so directors always seem to feel that they can do it better. Mike Newell is the latest to take a stab at adapting the novel and it’s a mixed bag.

Newell does a good job of condensing the essentials of the book into two hours of screen time. We see Pip as a poor young orphan surprisingly being turned into an aristocrat when a mystery benefactor comes to his rescue. The condition of taking the money is that he doesn’t try to discover the identity of the benefactor.

Pip suspects that Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster is the benefactor in question and believes that this donation is part of a master plan for him to marry her adopted daughter Estella.

David Nicholls’ script plays up the mystery elements of the novel. The central question of the identity of the benefactor constantly irks Pip.

It’s the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham that is the winning move of this adaptation. She’s a younger Miss Havisham than we usually see depicted on screen.

Bonham Carter is an actress who excels at playing protagonists on an emotional edge and thus Havisham is a character perfectly suited to her strengths as an actress: a gothic figure, seemingly always at breaking point, cooped up in a room, wearing lavish costumes and refusing to accept the reality that is around her. Hers is the perfume that permeates the film.

The best sequence is when Miss Havisham reveals how she came to be conned as a young lady, learning on her wedding night that her fiancé was a conman trying to take her money

The flashback sequence is shot with all the fine detail of a Tim Burton adventure. Newell seems far more enthralled by the rise and fall of Havisham than the supposed principal character Pip. When Bonham Carter is on the screen there seems to be no one else in frame.

In a year when female actresses have so far failed to excel in leading lady roles, Bonham Carter is positioned to be in the running come awards season.

Less convincing is Jeremy Irvine as Pip. The War Horse star never convinces as the young man battling feelings of inadequacy. Pip doesn’t convince as a blacksmith and so his transformation to a gentleman is never the great change it is supposed to be as he fails to adequately portray the nuances necessary for such a dramatic climb through the classes. The love story between Pip and Estella is never given enough screen time to work.

The big disappointment is Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch. It’s a rare day that the actor fails to nail a role, but he seems to be going through the motions of playing a convict. At times he seems to be carrying over the same dynamic that he shared with Newell on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The set design and period details are fantastic, successfully depicting a dark Dickensian world. Newell has not always had great success when he’s tackled literary adaptations (Love in the Time of Cholera was overblown) but this one is a surprisingly worthwhile addition to the Dickens celebrations and one that lives up to expectations.