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:: Great Expectations

With a story as intricate and multi-layered as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, there will always be a multitude of visual and narrative options for a filmmaker to explore. So it is disappointing that director Mike Newell has breathed so little freshness into the work’s sixteenth visual incarnation.

Young orphan Phillip Pirrip, aka Pip (Toby/Jeremy Irvine), is granted an opportunity to rise from his working class upbringing and become a gentleman of means at the finance of a mysterious benefactor. After moving to London, Pip decides to utilise his new status to pursue his childhood love Estella (Helena Barlow/Holliday Grainger), a spoilt heiress raised by Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) to be a heartless avenger on all the male sex. In the pursuit of love, Pip is dragged through the mysteries of the heart, of fate and of the past, all intersecting into one identity-shaping narrative for our Pip.

The involvement of Dickens’s story requires a delicate touch in its translation to the screen, the romance between Estella and Pip requiring particular care. However both this and Pip’s increasing dissatisfaction with his socioeconomic position are disappointingly mishandled—an utter shame considering it’s the film’s narrative and thematic centrepiece. One of the complexities of the Pip-Estella relationship is giving it enough oxygen at its genesis to transcend Estella’s abusive nature into something enduring and inexorable. Unfortunately the emotional credibility is limp at best, Pip’s love for Estella retarding at the incomprehensible. Furthermore, Pip’s relationship with the blacksmith Joe is disrupted by moments of tonal inconsistency and the welcome exploration of the gentlemen’s club rivalry steered dangerously close to soap opera. Of course a lot of this could have been resolved at the scripting stage but is also attributable to the inexperienced Jeremy Irvine whose weakness is only accentuated by Holliday Grainger’s strong performance opposite him as Estella.

Mercifully the lead and the central romance are eclipsed wholeheartedly by the secondary stories and supporting characters and cast. Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng, Olly Alexander and Ewen Bremner are all fantastic but the standout is Ralph Fiennes who plays the mysterious convict Abel Magwitch—a great performance by a great actor. The colour and talent of this bunch coupled with the well-placed humour encourages you to tolerate the shortcomings of the central narrative.

Perhaps it is naïve to compare this film to the classic David Lean version but, despite a few narrative detours, Newell’s Great Expectations is basically just an update of that very film. Ironically Newell’s version is at its weakest when it strays from Lean’s 1946 blueprint, drawing to the fore the question of the film’s necessity. Not really offering anything new, the film will most likely disappear into the periphery of a time overwhelmed by countless sequels, prequels, adaptations, reworks, retellings and remakes; a shame for such an important literary work.

Even for those unfamiliar with the original text or the litany of film/TV adaptations, you are aware that the mechanics of a great story are at work here, but through clumsy handling we are left with a far weaker, less grand, and inconsistent adumbration of the original, nowhere near as great as the expectations it excites.