Drama/Romance. Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Flemyng, Ewen Bremner, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Hawkins, Olly Alexander, David Walliams, Jessie Cave, Tamzin Outhwaite. Director: Mike Newell.
Expectations were certainly great when Mike Newell announced this lavish retelling of Dickens to coincide with the bicentenary of the writer’s birth.
David Nicholls, author of Starter For Ten and One Day, had penned the script and some of the brightest stars of the British acting firmament were confirmed as the book’s memorable protagonists.
Confirming all of the promise, Great Expectations was chosen as the coveted closing night gala of last month’s BFI London Film Festival.
Alas, as the characters in Nicholls’s screenplay learn to their cost, life is full of disappointments and Newell’s film has a fair few.
Arriving less than a year after the BBC’s well-crafted three-part adaptation – a centrepiece of the channel’s Christmas schedule – Great Expectations is both sluggish and slavish.
Crucially, the film fails to outshine David Lean’s seminal 1946 version, even with John Mathieson’s magnificent cinematography and Jason Flemyng’s endearing portrayal of honest blacksmith Joe Gargery.
As a boy, orphan Pip (Jeremy Irvine) has a disturbing encounter with escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) in the marshes close to the home he shares with his haughty sister (Sally Hawkins) and her husband (Flemyng).
The boy agrees to steal food for Magwitch but police eventually apprehend the suspect.
Soon after, the boy is dispatched to visit the reclusive Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), who requires a playmate for her ward, Estella (Holliday Grainger).
At first, Pip is scared of Miss Havisham, clad in her wedding dress.
“You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?” she jokes, ushering him forward.
Once Pip meets Estella, fear is replaced by infatuation and he falls under the spell of the girl, who has been raised “to wreak revenge on all men”.
Some years later, lawyer Mr Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) informs Pip that a mysterious benefactor has paid for the lad to become a gentleman.
Pip excitedly takes up lodgings with Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander) and slowly gains a foothold in London society, where he crosses paths once again with Estella and cannot conceal the torch he still carries for her.
“You’re in every thought, you’re in every part of me,” he gushes.
Great Expectations is a handsome rendering of the novel but there is little in Nicholls’ screenplay that we haven’t seen before.
Richard Hartley’s soundtrack swoons in all the right places but only faintly strums our heartstrings.
Irvine is an appealing leading man and David Walliams offers fleeting comic relief as Uncle Pumblechook, but Bonham Carter’s anaemic portrayal of eternal bride Miss Havisham is emblematic of a film covered in the cobwebs of previous adaptations.
Neither the best of times, nor the worst of times, Newell’s vision is something in between.
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