The BBC must like Great Expectations an awful lot, as within 12 months they produced a TV version starring Douglas Booth, Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone, and backed this movie version from director Mike Newell (Prince Of Persia). They should probably have stuck with the very well received former, as while handsomely mounted and well-acted, Newell’s movie is a little flat.
The movie tells the classic tale of orphan Pip Pirrip, who as a boy runs across an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes) in the Kent marshes, and is later invited to play with the young Estella by the batty Miss Havisham (Helen Bonham Carter). He then grows into a young man (Jeremy Irvine) who’s deeply in love with Estella (Holliday Grainger), even though she has had her heart hardened to destroy men by Miss Havisham.
Pip’s fortunes change when an anonymous benefactor (who he assumes to be Miss Havisham) offers him a fortune and the chance to go to London to become a gentleman. Leaving Kent behind, Pip attempts to live up to his new station in life, going to excess and discovering that not everyone will accept him as a gentleman. All the time his heart belongs to Estella, living in the hope she will be his. Eventually he learns the secrets both of her past and his present.
Relatively faithful and extremely attractive to look at, there’s nothing terribly wrong with this Great Expectations, but there’s nothing terribly right either. It’s all a little perfunctory and in a rush to get through as much of the book as it can in two hours, with the result it never feels like it’s getting very deep into it. Indeed at times it almost feels that the makers had their eye as much on being the screen version of Great Expectations that teachers show their students in 20-years-time as they did on ensuring it’s an entertaining experience in its own right.
Ultimately it all feels a little too safe, suffering the fate of many Dickens adaptations, which is to treat it as a straightforward period drama. With its outlandish characters and love of clever contrivance and neat plot twists, in many respects Great Expectations is closer to the Brothers Grimm than Jane Austen, but like many adaptations this film treats it much more like the latter. As a result, it somewhat seems like the scene-stealing turns by Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as escaped convict Magwitch have fallen in from a different movie, even though they’re the closest thing in the film to Dickens’ actual book.
Bonham-Carter may be too young for Miss Havisham, but you can certainly understand the casting, as she really gets this woman whose life stopped when she was jilted at the altar, and whose entire existence after that is devoted to revenge against men. However it is an extreme character, almost like a fairy tale wicked queen with a fairy tale comeuppance (which is how Bonham Carter plays it), while the rest of the movie is far more straightforward.
The disc includes a couple of okay but not particularly great featurettes, so there’s not a huge amount of entertainment beyond the decent but rather safe film. It’s a real shame Great Expectations never fully comes to life, as the acting is good and there are moments when it really feels like it’s going to manage to transcend the page, but in the end it’s a bit like somebody reading you a great story without fully taking you inside it.
Overall Verdict: A safe, teacher-friendly version of Dickens’ classic, which tells the story but never really comes to life in its own right. The cast is very good, but like many takes on the Victorian writer’s work, it’s too much period drama and not enough gothic melodrama.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac