Great Expectations: well, not really

November 29, 2013

Great Expectations
Grade: 83
Cast: Toby Irvine, Jeremy Irvine, Olly Alexander, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, David Walliams, Tamzin Outhwaite, Sally Hawkins, Ewen Bremner

Director: Mike Newell
Rating: PG-13, for mild violence
Running time: 128 minutes

The latest version of Great Expectations is a fully stocked one, one which preserves most if not all of the major subplots of Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel. Which will make it invaluable to lazy scholars who’d rather passively absorb the material than pore over the CliffsNotescq PM, but probably won’t impress many who count David Lean’s abridged and streamlined 1946 version as the best of the various movie and TV adaptations of the book.


That said, there’s nothing really wrong with director Mike (Four Wedding and a Funeral) Newell’s effort — he has managed, somehow, to turn in a film that runs only eight minutes over the two hours my patience generally allows for costume pageants, and given us some rather convincingly vivid images of what 19th-century London must have been like. Less interesting than the visuals are the familiar trajectories of the characters, but then all of us have seen this film before, or at least we should have, given all the opportunities we’ve been given. (The most atrocious version may be the 1998 “modernization,” directed by Alfonso Cuaron cq PMbefore he obtained critical darling status, with Gwyneth Paltrowcq PM and Ethan Hawke, who were abetted by Anne Bancroft and Robert De Niro, both of whom should have known better.)

The central character is an orphaned blacksmith’s boy named Pip (played first by Toby Irvine, later by his older brother Jeremy Irvine, who you might remember from War Horse) who, in return for an act of kindness rendered in a graveyard, receives an inheritance from a mysterious benefactor.

Pip assumes his benefactor is the demented Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter, enjoying herself immensely), who had enlisted Pip as a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow, then Holliday Grainger as an adult) with whom Pip has quite naturally fallen in love. Pip leaves for muddy, bloody London to take his place in society, and to transform himself from humble, earnest striver into an insufferable twit.

Because this is Dickens, the gravity of social Darwinism inevitably brings the young man back to his proper station, but not before he has endured a moral education at the hands of the wicked spinster Havisham and been unpardonably rude to his real secret benefactor. In the third act, everything rushes to a more or less satisfying conclusion, with some characters (particularly Robbie Coltrane’s pragmatic and invincible Jaggers, the lawyer who becomes Pip’s guardian) being dealt with rather perfunctorily.

But then, that part feels rushed in the book as well.

Aside from Bonham Carter, Coltrane and Ralph Fiennes — who delivers the richest performance in a role we won’t spoil here — the film has the feel of a very well done History Channel production. Which doesn’t make it bad, only superfluous.

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