This must be one of the biggest disappointments of the year. I had such great expectations for this adaptation (sorry, couldn’t resist), but it turns out Mike Newell’s retread of Dickens’s novel is a rather dull, uninspired affair.
It isn’t helped by the fact that the BBC (whose film department also backed this film) produced a stunning three-part television adaptation of the story last year. It aired at Christmas on BBC One and was one of the highlights of the year. It starred Douglas Booth as Pip, the young man lifted from a blacksmith’s poverty and made into a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor. He was great, as was Gillian Anderson who delivered a terrifyingly deranged performance as Miss Havisham. Sadly, anyone who has seen this version will have it fresh in their minds when they enter the cinemas to see Newell’s film. And I fear it only emphasises the latter’s flaws.
The start of the film fails to harvest the atmosphere from Dickens’s famous opening to the story. The marshes and the grave stones and the young Pip’s encounter with an escaped convict are solidly, capably presented, but there is nothing special about the whole thing. The cinematography is unremarkable and the performances are generally fine but hardly memorable. The convict is played by Ralph Fiennes, who brings a feeling of urgency to the role that is interesting to a point, but the performance lacks any real scope or sense of danger.
Because this is a British period drama, it features some of the best British acting talent, so for this reason it feels a little like a Harry Potter reunion. Voldermort, Bellatrix, Hagrid; they’re all there. Even Jessie Cave, who played Ron’s girlfriend Lavender Brown, turns up as a girl who has a crush on Pip. The actor of our protagonist hasn’t been in Harry Potter but was the star of Spielberg’s WWI epic War Horse. Jeremy Irvine’s performance in the leading role is, like nearly everything in the film, acceptable but unremarkable. He fails to invest Pip with sufficient depth and emotional clarity, something Douglas Booth managed superbly in the TV series last year.
The marketing for the film has focused around Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, the wealthy woman who invites the young Pip to play with her adopted daughter Estella. According to popular opinion, this was the role Helena was born to play. I thought the casting was intriguing, but she never really nails the character. The role needs a sense of unsettling menace, and although her turn is a little creepy, it doesn’t leave a particularly lasting impression.
Holliday Granger (pictured right, with Jeremy Irvine), who has steadily been building up roles on television in Waterloo Road and The Borgias, feels miscast as Estella. She never quite allows us to understand why Pip is so fascinated by her. She is beautiful, but her performance emphasises the character’s nasty and unlikable traits to such an extent it seems baffling why Pip would waste his time on her.
The main thing in the film’s favour is the script. Although it isn’t very well brought to life onscreen, David Nicholls’s screenplay allows Dickens’s humour to flourish; an aspect of his writing many adaptations fail to recognise.
Its heart may be in the right place, and everyone involved seems to give it a jolly good go, but this Great Expectations never quite justifies its existence. It doesn’t add anything particularly new to the story, nor does it retell the famous narrative with any noticeable flare or inspiration. It’s just all too dull and dusty.
Great Expectations (2012), directed by Mike Newell, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 12A.