4 December 2012


Boring films tend to make for boring reviews. The latest version of Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell, isn't boring, but it's uninteresting in one very important aspect- it doesn't take any risks with the material. The novel ranks among the most frequently adapted Charles Dickens tales, and so those in the know will, by now, be aware of all of the particulars.

For those who aren't in the know, Great Expectations is the story of Pip, a humble orphan who is brought up in the country by his sister and brother-in-law, and becomes something of a plaything for the eccentric and deranged Miss Havisham. While Pip falls for her ward, Estella, Miss Havisham herself seems eager to mould the children to her own design. Years later, Pip is propelled into high society, by the whims of a mysterious benefactor, and taught to be a gentleman, giving him some scant hope that he might win Estella's cold heart.

Over the weekend, in the run-up to seeing this, I discovered that Newell wasn't the first Harry Potter director to take on this story. I watched Alfonso Cuarón's 1998 modernisation, which transferred the narrative to the contemporary New York art scene. As I've said before on this blog, I'm all for a radicalised adaptation of a novel to the screen, but only when it works. Cuarón broke so many cardinal rules in his version, (how on Earth can you ever have the Miss Havisham character leave her home?) that it felt a little too far removed. Newell, by being unerringly faithful to a story that we've seen many times, is too close to give us any real surprises.

I don't think you can really spoil Great Expectations, by talking about its twists, but I'm still not going to divulge them here, as my familiarity with the story isn't the reason why I'm not impressed by this version. It comes back to Harry Potter and adaptation again. Back when Steven Spielberg was offered the director's chair on the first film, he had a number of adaptations that he wanted to add in the translation. He contended that a faithful adaptation of such a popular book would be "just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There's no challenge." Newell's Goblet of Fire is one of the least finessed adaptations in the Harry Potter series, and while this film isn't harried (or Harryed) by massively lengthy source material, there's the same sense of ticking off each story element, rather than considering it fully.

There are definitely positives in here, however, and almost all of them are related to the performances. By the way in which her scenes are spread across the running time, Helena Bonham Carter seems intent on a movie-stealing scissor movement, with her interpretation of Miss Havisham. Nevertheless, Jeremy Irvine holds up pretty well as the film's protagonist, and I've never really found Pip to be the most engaging character. Holliday Grainger makes a suitably sharp Estella, Robbie Coltrane is fascinating as Jaggers, the unscrupulous solicitor, and Ralph Fiennes is a terrific Magwitch.

The supporting cast is full of great performers too, including Jason Flemyng as Joe Gargery, a character who always seems to give character actors a chance to show off their charm and likeability, (including Chris Cooper in the Cuarón version) and Tamzin Outhwaite "who used to be off Eastenders" in an unrecognisable role as Molly the housekeeper. I believe that the cast is all that really makes this version distinctive, and yet it seems likely to replace David Lean's version as a fixture of English literature courses- that's how I originally saw that version, and I remember grumbles about the lack of a suitable film adaptation in colour.

Maybe that's the best use for 2012's Great Expectations- with its unerring reverence for much-travelled source material, it's great as a learning aid, but far less fascinating as a new adaptation. The performances are excellent, as a rule, and it looks as pristine and sumptous as any film made this year, but the familiarity of it all goes even deeper than the basic story beats. It's certainly not a bad film, but neither is it the most interesting version of a story that even South Park has covered.

Great Expectations is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen
Great Expectations, why not share your comments below? Do they know, we'd believe that they don't care what critics think, if they didn't keep mentioning it so prominently?
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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