Great Expectations (2012) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence including some disturbing images
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Sally Hawkins, Ewen Bremmer, Ollie Alexander, David Walliams
Director: Mike Newell
Screenplay: David Nicholls (based on the novel by Charles Dickens)

Review published November 18, 2013

Great Expectations is one of a sizable amount of adaptations of the Charles Dickens 1861 masterwork (including a high-profile miniseries that played on the BBC in 2011 and PBS in 2012), and, speaking solely as a person who comes into the film unfamiliar with the story, I can only imagine that this version by Mike Newell (Prince of Persia, Mona Lisa Smile) doesn't do the story enough justice to make this an essential version.  My logic is that any book that would draw out as many adaptations surely must be one that must inspire a great many filmmakers to try to make it, but the way the story is told in this 2012 version makes it feel in a rush to get to its destination and quite skimpy on details.  In short, it plays more as a highlight reel than a true, lasting adaptation.

The story, set in Kent in the middle of the 19th Century, mostly surrounds an orphan named Pip (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), whom we meet early on being raised by his very stern older sister (Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) and her benevolent husband, Joe the blacksmith (Flemyng, Hanna).  He is introduced later to the wealthy dowager Miss Havisham (Carter, The Lone Ranger) and her beautiful daughter Estella (Grainger, Anna Karenina), with whom he becomes smitten, and he dreams of being the kind of man of means who would be in such a place in life to win her hand.  Eventually, Pip is 'saved' from his lot in life as a blacksmith when an anonymous benefactor decides to catapult the lad into he life of a London gentleman, funding his new clothes, new surroundings and all of the creature comforts that come with being a man of great means.  He is soon in a position of class to be able to court Estella, who comes back into his life, but the upbringing of both is still an obstacle to a blissful romantic reunion, and she remains, as ever, out of reach.

It certainly isn't the fault of the actors if this feels like a good-but-not-great tale, as this is the kind of ensemble that most fans of the work might dream about.  Any costume drama with Helena Bonham Carter in a main role probably is worth at least a look for her performance, and she commands attention as the story's most beguiling character, Miss Havisham, even though the way she's utilized feels borne more from the tradition of Gothic horror than customary.  Jeremy Irvine is very likeable in the lead role as Pip (the older version -- young Pip is played by his younger brother, Toby (his debut)).  Holliday Grainger plays the icy would-be lover to Pip, Estella, though the two characters aren't quite built up nearly enough to suggest that Heaven and Earth should move in order for them to ultimately be together.  Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall, Wrath of the Titans) lends his talent in the smaller role as Magwich, a man with a checkered past that comes back to upheave Pip's present in some very grand ways.

Newell previously directed several of these performers in another major motion picture, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, and while he does do a nice job with the thespians, and in the overall look of the piece, as with that blockbuster, the results here feel underwhelming.  A good part of this has to do with trying to shoehorn Dickens' lengthy opus (a dense 600-800 pages, depending on publisher) into a two-hour film.  The film spans quite a few years, features a hefty number of characters, and has a handful of reveals which changes the dynamic of these characters dramatically.  It's a lot to try to keep up with, and unfortunately, while our mind is working overtime in order to keep all of the tabs on the various characters' and their motivations, we become disconnected with the personal touches at hand. 

Other than the performances, the one unique thing about this adaptation is the way that it is presented.  Newell's vision of Great Expectations comes from its point of darkness, as he frames his entire film using nearly all natural light, which makes scenes at night particularly dark, as well as the dingy environs one sees while indoors, with only moonlight and torches to bathe the human faces in eerie light.  So much concentration comes to the look of the film and in immaculately dressing up the quality actors, it's a disappointment that the same passion hadn't been applied toward the story itself, which touches on plot points without stopping for moments of reflection before we're given another.  While those familiar with the novel can fill in all of the blanks with their remembrances, someone new to the material is left to try to piece it together post-credits, trying to connect all of the plot points from memory in order for it to make some sort of sense, and, hopefully, derive meaning from the experience after the fact.

Great Expectations is a nicely packaged, well acted (if a bit unintelligibly mumbly at times), handsomely presented adaptation worthy of the Dickens story, except for the one major flaw: its story doesn't move as emotionally as it should.  One can only assume, given the talent on board, that the fault lies with the constrictions of the run time, though, to be fair, the 1946 version from David Lean is shot in 10 minutes less time, so that's an arguable point.  Nevertheless, while there's much to admire, there isn't much to feel for, leaving this overstuffed 2012 version feeling like an abridged-version refresher for fans who are intimate with the original work.  If you're a neophyte (like me) to the story who is still going to give this a go as your introduction, just know that this quality production delivers the essence of a beloved work, but not the narrative grit, glamour and gusto; it's a respectable effort, but, chances are, great expectations won't be met.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo