We aren’t exactly poor in adaptations—on the big and small screens—of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” But there’s always room for another, provided that it’s reasonably respectful of the source and shows a bit of imagination. Mike Newell’s new version is somewhat short on the latter score, but sufficiently strong in the former regard to make up for it. If you keep your expectations within reason, its stylish faithfulness to the book is enough to help one overlook a certain stolidity in its approach to the story.
“Expectations” is, of course, the tale of orphan Philip Pirrip, or Pip, who, as boy serving as apprentice to his brother-in-law blacksmith Joe Gargery, assists an escaped convict named Magwitch and is invited by a wealthy but reclusive neighbor, Miss Havisham, to be a companion for her adopted daughter Estella, to whom he quickly becomes devoted despite her pursuit of social position and wealth. As a young man he’s informed by London lawyer Jaggers that he has unexpectedly received a large sum from an anonymous benefactor that will allow him to become a gentleman in the city. Unfortunately, his newfound status causes him to lose sight of who he really is and grow into a profligate. It’s only the revelation of his benefactor and an ensuing tragedy (along with some help from his true friends) that lead him to abandon his self-destructive ways and return to his origins—and to Estella, who has learned a similar lesson from her life.
This précis, of course, only scratches the surface of a story that’s typically Dickensian in its surfeit of characters and richness of detail. Newell and his scriptwriter David Nicholls can’t shoehorn it all into a feature-length format, of course, but it’s not for lack of trying. Their treatment incorporates a surprisingly large number of the book’s narrative points and the figures who drive populate the plot, and does so with considerable style, thanks not merely to Nicholl’s and Newell’s scrupulous attention to Dickens but also to the period precision of Jim Clay’s production design, Dominic Masters’ art direction and Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costumes, all sensitively captured in John Mathieson’s elegant widescreen cinematography. (The only visual flaw is the excessive use of outdoor shots—especially of birds flying across the horizon—as a transitional device. It’s a tiresome cliché.) Richard Hartley’s score is finely wrought, if unexceptional.
As far as the casting goes, the weakness lies in the leading couple. Jeremy Irvine is rather bland as grown-up Pip, and it doesn’t help that he very much resembles the young Ethan Hawke, who played the character, renamed Finn, in Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 updating of the story. (His brother Toby, on the other hand, makes a winsome younger Pip.) Similarly, Holliday Grainger is stately and beautiful as the older version of Estella, but Helena Barlow makes her girl counterpart convincingly snooty.
The supporting characters, on the other hand, are vividly drawn, even if many of them have been reduced to little more than walk-ons, like Sally Hawkins’ Mrs. Gargery and David Walliams’ Mr. Pumblechook. On the other hand, Olly Alexander as friendly Herbert Pocket, Ewen Bremner as helpful Mr. Wemmick and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as the odious Bentley Drummie get a bit more screen time and use it well, while Jason Flemyng cuts a very winning figure as Joe and Bebe and Jessie Cave combine to make the younger and older versions of Biddy extremely likable.
Best of all are three alums from Newell’s “Harry Potter” films—Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch), Helena Bonham Carter (Miss Havisham) and Robbie Coltrane (Jaggers). The two men fit their characters perfectly and savor the opportunities for scene-stealing that they offer. And while Bonham Carter takes some getting used to in a part that’s usually assigned to an older actress, her strangely touching remoteness ultimately wins you over.
Newell’s version of Dickens’ popular novel doesn’t supplant David Lean’s 1946 film as its finest screen adaptation. But its fidelity to the source and its stylish, though somewhat sedate approach make it a good, if not great modern alternative to Lean’s still-superb filmization.