Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell’s take on the Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations is a safe, play-by-numbers affair that neither excites nor bores but simply picks off key moments and retells the tale with some of the cream of British acting crop, plus some extravagant set design that you would expect from a big-screen budget.
The problem is this cinematic adaptation comes too soon after the BBC’s Christmas TV special so there is understandably an instant feeling of déjà vu when the opening scenes of the Kentish marshes roll, rather than something fresh to whet the appetite.
Pip (Toby Irvine and Jeremy Irvine) is an orphan living with his greedy, overbearing sister (Sally Hawkins) and her downtrodden blacksmith husband Joe (Jason Flemyng) who takes to Pip like his own son. One day Pip is invited to visit the mysterious mansion of the equally mysterious and wealthy recluse Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) who seems to want a ‘play thing’ for her beautiful adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger), but later reveals more sinister reasons for her sudden interest in him. Having had a taste of the high life, young Pip soon gets his chance to reinvent himself as a gentleman in London, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor.
With such a grand, theatrical literary work to hand, it seems this 2012 cinematic version missed a trick in teasing out the flamboyant melodrama that the Dickens’ work is well known for. Perhaps this is part of the problem: the sheer wealth of material in the novel requires far more daring than One Day writer David Nicholls has demonstrated to stay faithful to the story while spicing things up a little. This version lacks the creepiness and threatening nature of Victorian Britain, if nothing else.
Even the assured, impeccable acting from Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as the dishevelled and (supposedly) frightening Magwitch does not instil a menacing fear or render you in awe of each iconic character’s next thought and move: both seem a trifle anaesthesised in their theatrics. Admittedly, Bonham Carter does well not to mimic her deranged Harry Potter character Bellatrix Lestrange, but a little more twisted malice would have been welcome, rather than her glazed-eyed, bug-eyed state in this. This was a part made for the actress, allowing her to draw on all her past character attributes.
Fiennes portrays a more quirky and emotional misfit than expected of the escaped convict, with a dreamlike back-story of bemusing blurred visions, but has none of the rough and ready persona of Ray Winstone’s TV version. Still, Fiennes’ more amenable take allows Newell to explore the intriguing paternal angle between fatherless Pip and Magwitch and the effects on Pip’s fragile psyche, which gives this film in its latter scenes a harrowing, melancholy feel.
Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger are far more commendable and suited to the roles of Pip and Estella than the BBC’s poster boy Douglas Booth and bland Vanessa Kirby. There is certainly more fight to Irvine’s portrayal and tragic lost soul, and Grainger injects greater spite into the womanly Estella than Kirby ever did. In fact, there is a more believable element of ‘damaged personalities’ at play to their individual performances that makes their search for love and happiness all the more heartbreaking to witness. This has got to be one of the earliest ‘child grooming’ stories to date, in a sense.
Newell’s Great Expectations is not the version to top all cinematic versions, not coming close to the atmospheric high drama of David Lean’s 1946 outing. However, Dickens fans will be appeased by the splendid cast at their disposal, minus weird and mind-bending dream sequences aside – an excuse to gloss over relaying key emotions and happenings in the novel, and will find the remainder an admirable watch of highbrow production values.