Director: Mike Newell
The richness and variety of Charles Dickens’ work has led to him being one of the most adapted writers for film in all literature (only Shakespeare beats him). Indeed, Great Expectations has been adapted many times before, and many would credit David Lean’s 1946 adaptation as the best of the lot. Mike Newell’s adaptation can’t compare to Lean (few directors can), but even on its own terms, 2012’s Great Expectations is hopelessly flat.
Besides Lean’s adaptation, the most successful translations of Great Expectations from page to screen have been television series. Watching this Great Expectations, it’s clear why those series work; a novel with both the breadth and depth of Dickens’ tome demands time and scope to be truly fleshed out. At just over two hours, Newell’s adaptation feels like its forever grasping at straws in an attempt to gather the nuances and various storylines together.
Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter IV) could have made his task a little easier had he cast the central role of Pip better. Jeremy Irvine was last heard with a grating Cornwall accent in Spielberg’s bloated War Horse, and he’s as boring here as he was there. He’s appropriately dashing but emotionally he’s a damp squib, and Dickens is nothing if not emotional. As a young orphan, Pip encounters an escaped convict named Magwich (Ralph Fiennes), and this encounter will end up transforming Pip’s entire life. Years later, Pip is brought to London to live in opulence at the behest of an unknown benefactor, under the watch of lawyer Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane). Pip leaves his older sister (Sally Hawkins, tetchy) and brother-in-law (Jason Flemyng, likeable) to start a new life as a gentleman of leisure.
The scenes with Pip’s entry into London society are the most notable, if only because they have an energy the rest of the film sorely lacks. Director of photography John Mathieson gives proceedings a very distinct dank look, not least the interiors of the home of Miss Havisham, the lovelorn spinster and stepmother of Estella, with whom Pip is in love. Estella is played by Holliday Grainger, but she’s all pout and no clout. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter trots out another of those ‘mad old bag’ performances she’s honed in several of Tim Burton’s films. Fiennes and Coltrane fare better with slightly more developed roles, but ultimately the young leads just aren’t interesting enough to carry the weight of the story.
Newell has done some imaginative and exciting work before, but Great Expectations rarely threatens to get hearts racing. It falls into the trap of so many period adaptations of being still and stately, even in the most emotional of scenes. There’s a stolidness to Great Expectations that Newell never manages to overcome, and David Nicholls’ script is such a tightly condensed job that it affords Newell no opportunities to show off. The condensing of the plots make all twists and revelations seem rushed and inorganic. Once again, the TV series have a luxury of time. Great Expectations seems in too great a rush to get to the last act, and yet seems to drag on and on.
Great Expectations is handsomely mounted but, save for a couple of performances, there’s simply too much going on too fast for us to care, and with only Irvine’s weak Pip to anchor it, it’s doomed to flit from the mind as soon as it ends.