Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is no stranger to adaptation, most notably so by David Lean in 1946 and, most recently, last Christmas with the acclaimed BBC two-part instalment. These successful adaptations immediately throw Mike Newell’s (Four Weddings and a Funeral) into direct comparison and of course incline high expectations. And while Newell remains faithful to the novel and introduces some of his usual comic aspects, he sadly fails to do anything too surprising.
Pip (Toby Irvine) is a young orphan living with his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery and her husband, a blacksmith. It is preordained that Pip should live a life of poverty and physical labour until a series of events leaves him the beneficiary of a substantial living from a mysterious benefactor. He endeavours to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart Estella (Helena Barlow/Holliday Grainger) using his new found status as a gentleman in London. The lives of the wealthy and landed are not as glittering as they first appear and Pip finds himself torn between the simple morality of his home life and the exhilarating excess of London’s elite. Years later, a debt-ridden Pip finally meets the provider of his good fortune and his life is thrown into alarming turmoil.
From the opening, we are introduced to the glorious rolling hills and marshy Kentish landscape typical of the novel with various long shots and wide angles. Newell’s interpretation of Pip getting ‘shook down’ in the graveyard is almost a carbon copy of the Lean’s adaptation and Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Magwitch in this scene is done so with a perfect brashness that starkly contrasts the unsure acting of the young Pip. Some later scenes were successful in as much as Newell utilised his skill for comedy and brought lighter approach, such as in the scenes involving Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng and Sally Hawkins), which were staged perfectly and provided some genuinely funny farcical moments.
You may also recognise David Walliams in a cameo role, although he is appearance his underwhelming due to his failure to hide his lack of acting skill behind his humour. In a role tailored to her acting style, Helena Bonham Carter shines as the jilted spinster Miss Havisham. Her manor house is as derelict as its owner and the scenes between her and Carter are captivating. Unfortunately, the Irvine brothers are both eclipsed by Carter’s superior performance. Although Jeremy Irvine aptly transforms his rough worker accent to a dialect more suited to a gentleman, he lacks believability in a ‘fresh-out-of-stage-school’ way. Similarly, the young Pip just does not compare to his 1946 counterpart, resulting in a few scenes that lack any real credibility.
Newell attempts to reinterpret and modernise the plot in the same manner as Joe Wright glamourised Anna Karenina. His overall concept is vague due to a lack of consistency in Great Expectations‘ ideas. This is most evident in the costume design: Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gargery wear typical working class attire yet with the introduction of The Finch Gentlemen’s Club, the costumes becomes abstract and expressive. Even more bizarrely, many of the Finch’s have 60’s style coiffed hair more suited to members of the Grease cast. Later, when Pip moves to London, the sets appear exceedingly cheap and gaudy; this is particularly noticeable in Pips new residence that looks like mocked up antiquities paired with a garish colour scheme.
Great Expectations is worth a watch if you are a fan of the novel, but be warned this adaptation is nothing divergent from its predecessors and unfortunately Newell does not try anything remotely daring with this wonderful material.