Great Expectations focuses on the story of an orphan, Pip (Jeremy Irvine), who is thrust into the hectic and gritty world of Victorian London by an anonymous benefactor. I doubt I was the only person eager to see Irvine in Mike Newell’s adaptation following his powerful debut in War Horse last year. Before his world is turned upside down, Pip works as a blacksmith in the rural Kent countryside. After a taste of luxury when playing with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella (Holiday Grainger), Pip yearns for more.
Aesthetically, the film has some impressive scenes. The contrast between the Eden-like Kent countryside and the dreary, cramped streets of London is beautiful to observe. Keeping Dickens in mind, an air of bleakness is noticeable throughout the film. This is seen most clearly during Pip’s arrival in London. The physical claustrophobia of a city amidst an industrial revolution complements Irvine’s performance of a young, eager and woefully-dressed innocent “lad from the country”. The unusual use of the occasional blurred shots are designed to signal Pip’s uncertainty in the high class London society that he moves in; the audience experiences Pip’s disorientation, caused by the contrast between his rural upbringing and poverty, and the opulence of his new London life. This adds a refreshing stylisation that is perhaps necessary to distinguish Newell’s Great Expectations from the plethora of period dramas that have hit both our television and cinema screens in the last few years. A similar approach in adaptation was taken with Andrea Arnold’s unrefined and brutal Wuthering Heights, which eschewed a musical score and displayed a Terrence Malick-like obsession with the natural world. It is always a tremendous task for any director to squeeze such a rich and dynamic plot into a mere two hours. With characters as diverse and colourful as Dickens’ Newell has achieved nothing short of brilliance.
The understated romance between Pip and Estella is strengthened by David Nichols’ writing. Great Expectations puts flashbacks to good use, also caputuring the reflective tone in the novel’s ‘s first person retrospective narration. In this regard, Nichols hints that their feelings for each other are the result of childhood victimisation by estranged parents and malevolent adults. Indeed, he achieves all this in one scene when Pip tries to convince Estella to be with him. Grainger’s and Irvine’s acting provide an almost tangible sense of intimacy given the difficult circumstances of their encounters.
The film is elevated by its remarkable cast. If it were not for Ralph Fiennes’ raw ferocity as the escaped convict Magwitch, or Toby Irvine’s poignant portrayal of childish innocence as a young Pip, the film would not have been as successful. Alas, a frightful, though thankfully short, performance by David Walliams is a ludicrous addition to the film. His dialogue is incomprehensible and causes the phrase “I am a lady”to play on a hellish loop in my mind every time he speaks. Helena Bonham Carter, by contrast, gives a compelling performance as the disturbed Miss Havisham. Of course, this was to be expected; Newell’s Miss Havisham is an older, pension-receiving Bellatrix Lestrange. Thankfully, Bonham Carter inhabits the role of a jilted bride more convincingly than some previous actresses. Her vampish performance may initially appear more like “Frankenstein’s bride” but, as Havisham’s back-story is established through those handy flashbacks, Bonham-Carter skilfully depicts her character’s turmoil.
Great Expectations boasts a great cast and (fortunately) sufficient engagement with the novel. Although it may be destined for a similar fate, Newell manages to keep his version of Great Expectations distinct from the laborious and repetitive adaptations frequently shown on ITV2.