Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Holliday Grainger, Jeremy Irvine
What’s sad about Great Expectations is the sheer number of achingly predictable and samey adaptations, many of them redundant in their quest to bring to life one of the most loved stories of all time. Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age novel has been adapted so many times that we’ve lost count of the numerous Pips and Miss Havishams floating aimlessly about in the movie and mini-series sphere. Perhaps even more tragic is that we now have too much to compare future adaptations to, leaving the possibility of endless disappointment wide open. Unfortunately what this means is that the latest all-star Great Expectations was at a distinct disadvantage before it even began.
A rags-to-riches tale of love and heartache, Great Expectations follows the story of a humble orphan named Pip, who lives with his cruel sister and unassuming Uncle Joe. When Pip receives the help of an anonymous benefactor following a simple act of kindness, he’s given the means to become the gentleman he dreams of being. Along the way Pip encounters the reclusive Miss Havisham, a woman driven mad by love and rejection, and her adopted daughter Estella, a young girl being groomed to break men’s hearts, a girl Pip falls in love with and struggles to forget.
Arriving all too soon after the 2011 televised mini-series with Douglas Booth and Gillian Anderson, this feature film brings nothing new to the period drama table. It begins with that grey and misty iconic image of the Kent marshes in the early-mid 1800s and sadly it never gets any brighter. The characters were toned down from those of Dickens, as if they’d been sedated. The severe strangeness of Havisham, the cruelty and selfishness of hot-tempered Mrs. Joe…these extraordinary characters were suddenly lacklustre in the hands of director Mike Newell. Helena Bonham Carter’s Havisham played a very rushed part in the film, barely revealing the extremity of her insanity and her unhealthy influence on Estella. As an actress known for her portrayals of mad and wacky characters, Bonham Carter should have thrived in this role but it got lost in the midst of empty emotion. Whilst Gillian Anderson wasn’t the ideal Havisham, she had the vacant aura that’s so imperative to believing in this woman who’s lost complete sense of the real world. It was a characteristic that went beyond the cob-web covered wedding dress and pale makeup, instead revealing a broken woman who’s lived in the shadows of Satis House with only her memories and hatred of men to stew on.
Ralph Fiennes was also not at his best here, giving a sub-standard performance as convict Abel Magwich. His cockney accent sounded horribly false and, compared to his epic performance as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, this character didn’t seem to come naturally to him. Thankfully Mike Newell seems to have had better luck with his younger cast, who managed to faithfully embody their characters with enthusiasm. If you were one of the many who objected to Douglas Booth’s pretty, chiselled featured Pip in 2011, you’ll be thwarted by the equally pretty Jeremy Irvine (War Horse). Whilst Irvine started shakily, he soon found his feet when Pip embarked on his journey as a gentleman in London. He flourished in the more dramatic scenes, showing the world what he’s truly made of. Holliday Grainger was in her element as Estella, conveying with ease the character’s conflicting emotions from her allegiance to Miss Havisham and her concealed affection for Pip. Sweeping into the story like a welcome breeze on a hot summer day was Olly Alexander as Pip’s trusty and amiable friend Herbert Pocket. His bumbling and excitable presence provided a well needed light amid the gloomy backdrop of smoky London. It seems you simply can’t go wrong with Herbert Pocket, as Harry Lloyd’s prior portrayal for BBC1 can attest to.
The absence of Orlick, one of the many villains of the story, left a gaping hole in the film. He’s such a vile, surly and memorable character that you instantly notice he’s been omitted from the script. The producers missed out on a golden opportunity to drastically improve a very average film.
Unless a director is willing to deviate dramatically from Great Expectations, giving an innovative take on the novel instead of just deleting characters that play a pivotal part in the tale, there’s no point continuing to churn out adaptations that leave very little lasting impact on the viewer. Newell’s Great Expectations is an uninspiring copycat film that belongs somewhere near the bottom of the ever-increasing pile of adaptations.