Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
To mark Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, yet another adaptation of ‘Great Expectations – his classic novel about love, coming of age and climbing the social class ladder – has made it to the silver screen.
Considering how it has been retold more than 10 times for film and television, to expect something revolutionary would be silly. Yet, this latest version does not feel like it is beating a dead horse.
Mike Newell is no newbie to print-to-screen adaptations. His handiwork on the darker and danger-filled ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ received favourable reviews after it was released. This time, he masterfully fleshes out the web of relationships between the characters and the story’s key themes.
Orphan boy Pip (Toby Irvine and, later, his real-life brother Jeremy Irvine) lives with his hot-tempered elder sister and her kind, passive husband Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng), the town blacksmith.
While visiting the family’s graves, he stumbles upon escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes, who manages to be frighteningly cut-throat). He scares Pip into helping him escape his shackles, and soldiers eventually catch up with him, but the encounter changes the course of Pip’s life.
When his uncle Pumblechook (‘Little Britain’s’ David Williams) takes him to visit Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham-Carter), a rich, ageing spinster who never takes off a wedding dress, he falls in love with her pretty, proud, adopted daughter Estella (played by Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger at different ages) and vows to learn to be a gentleman to win her heart.
Fast-forward a few years and Pip, now a young man, mysteriously inherits a fortune and moves to London to become a gentleman. But his dream hits a roadblock – Estella has been trained by the bitter Havisham to be an ice queen who breaks hearts.
The film is beautifully shot. Pip’s childhood town is bright and splashed with sun rays, while London is grey and dreary, a contrast that mirrors his sinking into the cold, selfish ways of the rich.
Miss Havisham’s mansion is also a sprawling piece of work. Filled with cobwebs and dusty treasures, it truly looks like it froze in time along with her life.
What shines the most is the superb acting from the supporting cast. Flemyng brings so much heart to the doting father figure he plays, while Olly Alexander’s turn as Pip’s London mate is a joy to watch.
Fiennes – who first worked with Newell when he played Voldemort in ‘Goblet of Fire’ – is extraordinary as the uncouth Magwitch, deftly handling his character’s transformation and ill-fated woes as only a master actor can.
Bonham-Carter, also a ‘Harry Potter’ alumnus, nearly veers into Bellatrix Lestrange territory – unpredicatably batty – every now and then. Still, she brings a refreshing quirkiness to the normally weary Miss Havisham and milks pity for her character’s actions.
With their powerful performances combined, the supporting cast makes up for the less captivating leads. Both the older Pip and Estella (Grainger looks to be the go-to girl for period movies who has starred in ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Jane Eyre’) look gorgeous but come off a bit stiff in action.
Pace-wise, Newell gives the film a natural flow. The novel’s many nuances – struggling between selfishness and generosity, facing heartbreak and accepting life’s blows – are kept intact.
Whether you are new to Dickens’s tale or returning for another go, this take on ‘Great Expectations’ is thoughtful and well-cooked enough to leave you satisfied.