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Great Expectations

October 17, 2013

Great Expectations (2012)
Director: Mike Newell
Actors: Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Ralph Fiennes

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Synopsis: Young country blacksmith, Pip (Jeremy Irvine), is whisked off to become a gentleman in London at the behest of a generous benefactor. Pip assumes it’s the mysterious Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) as a means to get together with Estella (Holliday Grainger), but a more disquieting hand is behind Pip’s destiny….

Review: The problem with any new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” is that it’s such a familiar story with its memorable characters, incidents and landscapes, and it’s been done so many times before in any different manner of ‘styles’, that it must by logic be forever diminished by the spectatorial parlour game of wondering how the constituent elements will play out once again: how the iconic opening graveyard scene will be filmed, who will play Magwitch, how Miss Havisham will be reimagined etc.

This new BBC film adaptation of “Great Expectations” has the extra, slightly puzzling, burden of coming less than a year after the BBC’s most recent TV version of the novel. As such, familiarity breeds contempt, and this is only underlined by the fact that director Mike Newell and co have played this one about as straight and conventional as a filming of “Great Expectations” can get. It’s not an entirely unintuitive tactic as the source material can often lead the director/writer/actor down the ‘panto’ route, but Newell (and Helena Bonham Carter in particular as the ripe character of Miss Havisham), deliver a plausible, restrained telling of the fable. Other commendable elements to this adaptation are the attempt to fit in more of the narrative’s complex backstory, and Holliday Grainger’s touching performance as Estella gives the film its necessary emotional thrust (“Great Expectations” is after all at heart a very poignant, wrenching story of class and the fickle finger of fortune).

Not quite so successful is that – bar running through the dense plot at a rate of knots – it’s not obvious what Newell or adaptor David Nicholls’ ‘take’ on the proceedings actually is, and – for me – the work lacks the magic of the two best adaptations of “Great Expectations” to date. Of course, everyone rightly remembers David Lean’s genius 1946 version with its gorgeous black-and-white photography and simple classicism, but I’m also a huge advocate of Julian Jarrold’s 1999 BBC TV version: It’s attractively, starkly filmed, there’s a very tangible poignant undertow to the story, and the casting is fantastic. Bernard Hill makes for a certifiably rustic, working-class Magwitch (is Ralph Fiennes just a touch too actorly in the latest version?), Ioan Gruffud and Justine Waddell make for a superb Pip and Estella, and Charlotte Rampling steals the show as a very haunted, sinister, contemporary incarnation of Miss Havisham. (October 2013)

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