Having only just received yet another lavish adaptation by the Beeb several years ago, 2012 seemed a strange year for British director Mike Newell to unveil his own big-screen incarnation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Selected to close last year’s London Film Festival, this most recent take on the literary classic certainly has the acting pedigree to turn heads, but struggles to do anything vaguely fresh or interesting with its source material. Young orphan Pip (played by Irvine brothers Toby and Jeremy in his younger and older years) is given a chance to rise from his humble beginnings thanks to a mysterious benefactor.
Moving through London’s class ridden world as a gentleman, Pip uses his new found position to pursue the beautiful Estella (Helena Barlow/Holliday Grainger); a spoilt heiress he’s loved since childhood. Yet the shocking truth behind his great fortune will have devastating consequences for everything he holds dear. With Academy Award double nominees Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter – as grubby convict Magwitch and jilted bride Miss Haversham respectively – further bolstering a significant all-British ensemble, it’s surprising then that Newell’s Great Expectations fails to live up to live up to its own.
With almost none of the radical invention of Andrea Arnold’s moody Wuthering Heights (2011) or Joe Wright’s ultra stylish Anna Karenina (2012), Newell and his cast go through the box-ticking costume drama motions with all the empty clinicalness of a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster. Irvine is a passable Pip, able to get his mouth around two distinct dialects as he makes the transformation from West Country bumpkin to London gentleman, whilst Grainger is similarly schizophrenic as the sometimes-tender, sometimes-vindictive Estella. Jason Flemyng and Sally Porter also impress as Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gargery, Pip’s guardians, who provide much of the film’s best-humoured comic moments.
Surprisingly, its Fiennes and Carter that prove the real disappointments, both too actorly and staid to ever come across as anything other than hired performers. When compared with their BBC counterparts (a suitably gruff Ray Winstone and a superb Gillian Anderson), the fault-lines really start to show. Carter in particular grates as Haversham, too wide-eyed and eccentric for her part as the rebuffed wretch.
Newell’s Great Expectations suffers greatly from never really knowing what it wants to be; sumptuous shots of the Devon countryside are juxtaposed with remarkably cheap-looking Victorian London sets; costume design is initially devoutly period, before introducing the steam-punk stylings of the decadent Finch troop (led by Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Bentley Drummle). What’s left behind is a jumbled misfire, which rightly found itself resigned to Best Costume and Make-up nominations during awards season.
This review was originally posted on 21 October, 2012, to coincide with the BFI London Film Festival.
Win a Blu-ray copy of Mike Newell’s Great Expectations with our latest competition. Follow this link to enter.