LFF 2012: Great Expectations

As many have already mentioned, it seems a rather odd time to present this latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, Great Expectations considering the recent version last Christmas on the BBC is still pretty fresh in people’s minds. Although almost a year ago now, it seemed to be the highlight on Christmas television last year with the amazing Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham and Ray Winston as Magwitch. This adaptation stood apart from others, it was beautifully filmed, incredibly well acted and written and brought the story to life like never before – the other positive about last year’s version, it was made for television.

Dickens, for those who are knowledgable about the writer, finds much of his work adapted repeatedly for television – the reason for this? It simply works. It has been noted year after year, biography after biography that Dickens wrote his stories in parts therefore having to leave each time on a cliffhanger – this is almost exactly how one would watch an episode of a television show. Each episode ends where the part is thought to end, at the height of tension and therefore making you want to come back for more. Personally, this is the greatest weakness of filming Dickens on the big screen – there is no cliffhanger, no suspense or tension but rather two and a half hours squashed (albeit as cleverly as possible) together to get the major plot drives in. Therefore during this review, please remember, my initial thoughts on Dickens in film.

Now, to the film itself, which stars some of the best of British talent – therefore one can come to expect a lot from the production. Along with star talent and heritage literature, the film is directed by Mike Newell, known for directing that Harry Potter film with Robert Pattinson in. From the off, I can happily admit that the film doesn’t do anything new or unique to the story. Some could say this is a shame, I would argue, that rather than it being unfortunate, we can see this as another opportunity to present one of the greatest stories of all time to an audience who either haven’t seen it, or read it. This may be me looking a little too optimistically at the film, but I didn’t see any glaringly awful problems with the film but nothing stood out as exciting either – which I suppose was the greatest problem.

For those who don’t know the story, Great Expectations follows the young boy, Pip (Toby Irvine) who lives with his sister (a hysterically violent Sally Hawkins) and her husband, Joe (the brilliant Jason Flemyng). One day Pip is called to Satis House by the jilted bride, Miss Havisham (an electric Helena Bonham Carter) to play with the young girl, Estella (Helena Barlow). Years pass, Pip falls in love with Estella but they then are torn apart as Pip is to become Joe’s apprentice, as a blacksmith. One day a mysterious benefactor leaves a great deal of money to Pip (the rather dashing, Jeremy Irvine), who leaves the countryside to move to London to become a gentleman. Once there, he finds Estella (Holliday Grainger) again, whom he still loves but other people get in the way. Along the way, we meet Mr Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), the lawyer who first looks after Pip but then becomes centre to a bigger story and the homeless convict, Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) who is connected to Estella is some unknown way.

The above, really is a very minimal and bare overview of, in my opinion, one of the greatest and most compelling love stories of all time. There is drama, intrigue and tension in Great Expectations, but I worry that Newell’s adaptation disguises what is a brilliant story with the over the top acting of some of the cast. Although names like Carter and Fiennes, should be something to show off, neither of them are particularly wonderful in their roles, but neither of them are bad at them either. What is noted, is that they aren’t quite as good as the BBC version last year, which is unfortunate for this film as it has a lot riding on these actors. As for the central two characters, Pip and Estella, both Irvine and Grainger, are massively interesting interpretations of characters who have been done over and over. Irvine manages to bring a sense of both naivety from the country boy and mixes it with genuine pompousness when he moves to London, he never feels like he genuinely belongs anywhere and this goes in his advantage as he embodies a feeling that so many people feel throughout their lives. The only downside to Pip is during the last act of the film, when it starts to feel like a murder mystery, he gets a little too Jack Bauer for my liking, running from one building to another hatching these plans. As for Grainger as Estella, she also balances both the loving beauty and empty temptress really well, leaning a little towards the latter for most of the film – that is until, a producer (I am guessing) said, “come on Mike, finish up quickly now…” and Estella is suddenly confronted by Pip and the end has come.

As for the look of the film, it’s uneasiness to do anything new with the surroundings, unlike Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina from earlier this year, can be held as both a positive and negative to the film. It finds itself in beautiful locations, with some brilliant detail (one only has to admire the look of old London) and the interior of Satis House is seriously amazing to explore, but Newell doesn’t allow his camera to do so. One of the biggest faux pas of the film is that Newell doesn’t realise the strengths of the film and exploit them. By constraining what is shown on screen, he shows, what becomes a very small world in few rooms. Therefore, despite having stunning set design, nothing new is shown and nothing bold is said.

At the end of the day, this version of one of Dickens greatest stories is fine and this I think is the greatest misfortune of the film. I didn’t love it enough to scream about it, but I didn’t think it was bad enough either to tell you to avoid it. A middling film, with (and excuse the pun) great expectations, virtually none of which are realised.

Great Expectations will be playing on the 21st (Odeon Leicester Square).

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