Great Expectations is the “classic novel” par excellence: a book everyone wants to have read.
I was compelled to read it in school, but bunked out early on: I recall a youngster called Pip being shaken down in a graveyard roust by grizzled villain, but the text thereafter is a blur.
I should have carried on: thirty years later, courtesy of Mike Newell, I find out that it’s a super story.
Great Expectations has been filmed many times and in many ways. Alfonso Cuarón updated and transposed the story to New York, a liberty that hindsight confirms was not wise.
Mike Newell reclaims Dickens’ story to its rightful place and time. He also reclaims the night: Great Expectations 2012 is very dark, as if every camera has been set to under expose by two stops. Every scene has the feel of dawn, or dusk.
We start, at dusk, in a churchyard in the Kent marshes. Young Pip is surprised by the wild-haired felon Magwitch (an unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes), caked in mud and shadow. Magwitch orchestrates his liberation in perhaps Dickens’ weakest dramatic development: by letting Pip go, on condition he returns with a file. (Why Pip wouldn’t just go home, stay home is difficult to fathom, however ghastly his guardian big sister (Sally Hawkins) may be.)
Thus Magwitch emancipates himself – one of the few characters in a story of class-bonded servitude to do so – but is apprehended soon after, struggling with a fellow convict like a salamander in mud.
To this early point, the story seems apropos very little: an unconnected set of events we cannot easily stitch together. But from here the plot weaves slowly, surely and ingeniously.
Helena Bonham Carter arrives direct from her own central casting unit to play the gothic bat-lady whom Dickens must surely have had in mind when he first optioned the screenplay. Bonham Carter’s Miss Havisham is entwined in the darkness of her decaying and overgrown mansion, which is a triumph of production design inside and out: a set on which Bonham Carter heartily and entertainingly chomps for the duration of her involvement.
Pip (Jeremy Irvine), by contrast, is a boy without much appetite. He is a curious protagonist: a man more acted upon that acting; he develops passively, almost always in reaction to an impetus provided by another. He is implausibly ordered around, summonsed to and fro and then, some years later, awarded the life of a London gentleman by a mysterious benefactor. At each turn Pip obediently does as he is bidden, while around him secondary characters propel events. I never got far enough through the novel to know whether this is Dickens’ fault or screenwriter David Nicholls’, but Pip is an oddly flat eye in such a vigorous storm.
No matter: as the motives of the various characters congeal Dickens’ extravagant plotting comes to the fore. The fortunes of a Norfolk blacksmith’s son, a prison escapee, a cuckolded spinster, a mystery daughter, a Machiavellian London solicitor are all tied ingeniously together into a grand finale to this satisfying film.
Mike Newell admirably retains the little details, such as Wenlock’s fortressed house and the aged P, without losing the bigger picture, but I think his vision is still too dark, cerebral and sincere for this Great Expectations to transcend its high-brow roots. Given how Cuarón fared trying to do that I don’t suppose that will bother Newell and it certainly didn’t bother me. Fine cinema.
Great Expectations is in cinemas 30th November 2012
DIRECTOR: MIKE NEWELL
STARRING: RALPH FIENNES, HELENA BONHAM CARTER, JEREMY IRVINE, JASON FLEMYNG, ROBBIE COLTRANE, HOLLIDAY GRAINGER, EWEN BREMNER
RUNNING TIME: 128 MINUTES