Filming a classic means making choices. What to go with? Plot, dialogue, character, atmosphere? Mike Newell seems to have gone mainly for plot, with a few concessions to conventionally lush cinematography. As a result, his film adaptation of Dickens’ story about young Pip’s Great Expectations is essentially flawed.
By putting in place, somewhat pedantically, all the pieces needed to follow Pip’s travails from resilient orphan to young gentleman whose unexpected financial fortune threatens to corrupt his fine character, Newell and screenplay writer David Nicholls have bypassed at least one of the novel’s finer points: the role of lesser protagonists, essential when it comes to providing variation and fleshing out the bare bones of melodrama.
The main movers have no choice but to hold centre stage, and Dickens’ splendidly colourful panoply of human nature fades to black and white. In consequence, the lead actors bear a significantly heavier burden. Ralph Fiennes provides character-actor depth to the role of Magwitch, maligned convict turned benefactor. Robbie Coltrane is coldly manipulative as Pip’s lawyer, but Helena Bonham Carter as the spidery Miss Havisham is not given a chance to emerge from her dusty corners as the grand dame of vengeance, Jeremy Irving as Pip doesn’t quite straddle the victim/hero divide and Holliday Grainger as Estella only really comes into her own in the last scene. A little late to be getting it right.
Great Expectations | Directed by Mike Newell (UK, USA 2012) with Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irving, Holliday Grainger. Starts December 13