If, as director Mike Newell said on the publicity circuit for Great Expectations, there’s a trap in novelty, then it’s one his handsome adaptation never falls into. Very little is novel about this traditional – some would even say cautious – telling of Dickens’ best-loved tale.
David Nicholls’ dutiful screenplay concertinas five hundred pages of action, thrills, romance and comedy into a plump two-hour film that ticks a great deal of the expected boxes. Aside from the book’s first person narration, as much of the original plot, characters and dialogue as is practical are left intact, and rendered with fond respect for Dickens’ ripping yarn of young pride and old misdeeds. Wopsle, Orlick and Miss Skiffins may not have made the cut, but all the big hits are accounted for, and unlike the BBC’s recent emo-version, the comedy thankfully hasn’t been excised.
War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine plays Pip, the orphan boy brought up by hand by his abusive sister (Sally Hawkins) and her warm-hearted blacksmith husband Joe (Jason Flemyng). Plucked from his life at the forge by an extraordinary personage and given the means to become a London gentleman, Pip’s journey of folly, love and regret is solidly handled by Irvine, whose performance is noticeably more assured and comfortable than his debut in Spielberg’s WWI epic.
Similarly good as damaged adoptee Estella is Holliday Grainger, whose old-fashioned movie star beauty is a good fit for the film’s honeyed period feel. As ever, the success of the romantic plot lies with whether the audience is able to feel for Pip and Estella despite their ugly pride, and happily, Irvine and Grainger make it easy.
The big noise though, comes from the two headline actors cast as convict Magwitch and wealthy hysteric Miss Havisham: Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. The first’s earthy, stylised diction takes some getting used to, but the second’s ghoulish corpse bride aesthetic fits like a glove. The job lot of casting is sensibly done in fact, from Ewan Bremner’s disciplined Wemmick to Robbie Coltrane’s unsentimental solicitor Jaggers (though you’ve to shake the Blackadder bells that start ringing when he first appears in his mutton-chops). Even – though some disagree with me on this point – David Walliams makes sense as pompous, preening Pumblechook.
For all its familiarity, Newell’s adaptation isn’t bereft of the odd visual surprise. While the forge, the graveyard, and the Satis House sets don’t divert a jot from the umpteen other on-screen versions we’ve seen, Miss Havisham’s parasitic relations are stylised as gothic vultures, and the ‘Finches of the Grove’ (a profligate group of wealthy young gentlemen with whom Pip falls in) are done up pleasingly like the Bullingdon Club at an Adam Ant revival.
The film’s fidelity to its source material is being read in some quarters as timidity, or evidence of Newell being cowed either by Dickens’ reputation or that of the seminal 1946 David Lean adaptation. I find it hard to agree with either assessment. There may be no bells and whistles, but this is clearly a film made by people who believe in the power of the original book, unadorned with modern twists or a drastic reimagining.
Is it as good a film as the novel is a novel? Of course not, but neither is it made weaker for trying to be faithful and bring as much of Dickens’ original to its audience, and especially to younger viewers. (Without intending any insult whatsoever, Newell’s film will be an absolute boon to secondary school English teachers come the last week of term.)
It’s easy to be ungenerous to conservatism, and releases like Great Expectations tend to inspire a strangely tight-fisted attitude to cinema, reducing a film’s worth to the perceived necessity of its existence. Do we really need another Great Expectations, people ask? At a time when budgets and revenue dictate all, it might be a valid question, but it’s also a depressingly limited one.
Great Expectations opens in the UK on Friday the 30th of December. Read our interview with director Mike Newell, here.
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