Great Expectations review (Blu-ray)

Charles Dickens' 13th novel has been the subject of over a dozen film and TV adaptations, including a celebrated 1946 version by David Lean that is often ranked as one of the finest literary adaptations on film. Newell’s new version is unlikely to reach the heady heights of the BFI’s greatest British films poll (Lean’s sits at number five in the 1999 poll) but it is a decent adaptation, if a little stuffy.

You probably know the story, but for the slow readers out there…

Great Expectations is the story of Phillip ‘Pip’ Pirrip, an orphan being raised by his adult sister and brother in law. It’s not an idyllic childhood; Pip’s sister beats him and her husband Joe regularly. It isn’t all dark, Joe is kind and generous and shields Pip from the worst of his wife’s regular rages. Fate intervenes early when the boy, visiting his parent’s grave, encounters escaped convict Magwitch (Fiennes) who terrifies him  into stealing from his sister’s Christmas buffet, and taking a file from Joe’s tools so he can escape his manacles. When soldiers come looking for the convict, Pip doesn’t give him up and although he is quickly captured.

Later Pip is essentially ‘hired’ by a wealthy spinster Miss Havisham (Bonham Carter) to play with her niece Estella in her crumbling gothic mansion. Although Estella is disdainful of the working class boy Pip becomes enraptured with her and eventually tells Miss Havisham at which point he is paid off, and asked never to darken their doors again.

Years pass and Pip grows from a boy into the extremely handsome (so my wife is at pains to tell me) Jeremy Irvine. Pip is frustrated with life in the Kent marshes, longing for something grander than the life of a rural blacksmith. Quite unexpectedly he is contacted by a solicitor from London Mr. Jaggers (Coltrane) and told that he is to receive a fortune from a mysterious benefactor under the condition that he make no attempt to discover their identity and that he use the monies to set up in London and become a gentleman. Much to Joe’s disappointment Pip is out the door like a shot.

In London, Pip obtains rooms fit for a gentleman and sets about living a life of aimless luxury intent on becoming the sort of upper class gentleman fit for the hand of Estella and the approval of her guardian Miss Havisham (who he assumes to be his mysterious benefactor). Of course complications ensue, and there is a great deal more of Dickens’s rich and complex plot before the story’s resolution.

As an adaptation this new version is serviceable if not outstanding, it truncates Pip’s early years into a bit of a blur. This is especially apparent in the brief appearance of his sister which is a waste of an actress as fine as Sally Hawkins. In fact fans of the novel will realise that a major storyline has been excised here, a necessary evil for a film that still runs to almost 130 minutes.

A bit too much time in the middle exploring Pip’s layabout lifestyle, although it has to be said that any appearance by the marvellous hooligan toff’s club he joins is to be welcomed (and will lead a modern audience to make comparisons to the Bullingdon Club). This club, the ‘Finches of the Grove’ and their odious head boy Bentley Drummle (a very good Ben Lloyd-Hughes) are fantastic, bedecked in what looks like an Adam and the Ants version of Victorian garb and sporting crazy Flock of Seagulls / Teddyboy haircuts, they are like a toff version of A Clockwork Orange’s Droogs.

Miss Havisham in her tattered wedding dress and mouldering mansion are gothic in the manner of Tim Burton. A comparison made all the more unavoidable by the casting of Helena Bonham Carter. The actress is very good in the role however, and her introduction is bizarrely similar to the scene in Blade Runner where Deckard investigates J F Sebastian’s apartment as the veiled replicant Priss looks on.

These two highlights do make one wish the producers had just gone the full nine yards and hired Tim Burton. I might not be the director’s biggest fan, but I’d be very interested in a more phantasmagorical and gothic take on what is after all, an oft-filmed and familiar story. However Newell is always a safe bet and does a solid job here greatly aided by cinematographer John Mathieson who makes this a consistently great looking film.

The real issue with the film is a near total lack of chemistry between the romantic leads Irvine and Holliday Grainger. Never does Pip’s all consuming love for Estella come across. This is the engine of the story and it never gets out of second gear. One cannot blame the actors, Estella in particular is never shown as anything more than a haughty spoilt girl, the part is underwritten.

Elsewhere among the cast Fiennes is a surprisingly weak link, he seems to be coasting and Magwitch is neither neither as terrifying nor as ultimately tragic as he should be. This Magwitch isn’t a patch on Finlay Currie in Lean’s version, or Robert DeNiro in Alfonso Cuarón’s underrated 1998 version which updated the tale to contemporary America. There are fine supporting turns though, especially from Olly Alexander as Pip’s friend, and a moving performance from Jason Flemyng as Joe. I could have done without David Walliam’s appearance, which is somewhat distracting.

In the end, this is a handsome but slightly stodgy adaptation that occasionally hints at a more daring approach but ultimately plays it too safe to thrill.

EXTRAS ★★ The featurette Introducing Great Expectations (5:17); the featurette The Characters of Great Expectations (5:33); deleted and extended scenes (11:24); and a photo gallery.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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