Great Expectations

GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Barlow, and Toby Irvine. Directed by Mike Newell. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 129 min.

“Great Expectations” has been performed on and off the screen for decades, and this is the latest version on film. It closed the BFI London Film Festival in 2012, and is a British adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel of the same name.

Nicely capturing the misty Kent marshes of early nineteenth century England, the film opens with scenes of Pip (Toby Irvine) as a young orphan, visiting his mother’s grave. Pip is approached by an escaped convict, and, partly through fear, Pip provides him with food and a tool to remove his chains. While working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, he is summoned later to the house of a wealthy local eccentric, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), who lives as a jilted bride among the ruins of her wedding feast. There, he falls in love with Miss Havisham’s beautiful ward, Estella. Later, Miss Havisham’s lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) informs an older Pip (Jeremy Irvine) that he has come into a fortune to allow him to become a gentleman. His unknown benefactor is Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), who he helped on the moors as a young boy. All the time, Pip mistakenly thought his benefactor was Miss Havisham.

To echo her own personal tragedy, Miss Havisham’s goal in life is to deny happiness in others. She encourages Pip in his ardour for Estella (Helena Barlow as the young Estella, and Holliday Grainger as a grown up woman), and wants Estella to break Pip’s heart. Pip at first is well below a person of “great expectations”, but comes up to them with the help of his anonymous benefactor, who paid for him to live in London to become a gentleman. He uses his wealth to return, and woo the hard-hearted Estella, with whom he has become infatuated. Estella, trained by Miss Havisham to reject all men, decides to marry someone she doesn’t love, and confronted by Pip, Miss Havisham dies by fire when her wedding dress accidentally catches alight. Estella and Pip are reunited at the conclusion of the tale, following the death of Estella’s ill-suited husband.

The intricate plot is vintage Dickens, and Miss Havisham is one of the most fascinating and interesting woman characters he has ever created.

It seems important to ask how this version is different from the ones before it. In this version, Mike Newell, the movie’s director, targets a younger audience, and despite the film’s period look, he aims for a more contemporary interpretation of the social divide, and analysis of Dickens’ characters, with their attitudes to wealth, poverty and success. Pip is fashioned to be especially good-looking for the part, and Estella has more of the trappings of icy enticement than previous versions have been allowed to have. The musical score for the film also has a modern edge.

Social themes are important. Pip’s good countenance and happiness are opposed intentionally to the isolation and loneliness of Miss Havisham, and Magwitch’s situation highlights the injustice of those who are more wealthy and fortunate than he has been. As Magwitch, Ralph Fiennes captures Dickens’ intent especially well, and Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham theatrically in attention-getting, true gothic style.

The movie is well-designed and edited, photographed sumptuously, and it packs multiple characters and scenarios into a 2-hour time-slot that necessarily crowds its scenes together. It is filled with atmosphere, contrasting colours, and dramatically uses deep shadows amidst the light. The scenes in London are particularly impressive for their hectic energy, and social comment.

This version of Dicken’s tale does not better some of the interpretations that have gone before it, in particular the excellent BBC television adaptation that was made in 2011, and David Lean’s version made some 66 years ago. But although it does not surpass all of the versions that have gone before, it is distinctive, well-directed by Mike Newell, and deserves to be seen as quality cinema.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Universal Pictures.

Out March 7th 2013.


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