Mike Newell makes a fine fist of Dickens' classic tale of a plucky pauper who's mysteriously transported into London's high society.
One of Charles Dickens' best-loved novels, Great Expectations has already been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions. So where to go next? Stay close to the source with a straightforward take in the vein of David Lean’s revered 1946 classic, or try for a modern spin, as Alfonso Cuarón did in 1998 by resetting the tale in contemporary New York?
Director Mike Newell treads an effective line between faithful and fresh, staying loyal to the Victorian novel while playfully milking its dark, Gothic elements in a tongue-in-cheek, almost over-the-top fashion that brings Tim Burton to mind.
The opening scene throws us straight into a snappy, visceral style that never allows the sprawling tale to drag. Young orphan Pip (played as a child by Toby Irvine) passes over misty Kent marshes to visit his parents’ graves. He’s then ambushed and scared witless by a desperate convict. Mud-covered and chained, Ralph Fiennes plays up the ghoulish aspect of criminal Magwitch, whom Pip promises to help.
Newell gleefully amps up the Gothic gloom when Pip, who lives with his cantankerous sister and her indulgent blacksmith husband, is enlisted by spinster Miss Havisham to play with her adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow). Trepidation strikes as soon as Pip enters dilapidated Satis House, where the residents wallow behind drawn curtains in the dim light of candelabras.
Helena Bonham Carter, a former corpse bride of Tim Burton, is an all-too-obvious choice as Miss Havisham. She taps into the Victorianstyle eccentricity of the frozen-in-time bride, still dressed in her now-yellowed gown, her wedding cake teeming with rats on the dustcovered banquet table. Amid this decay, Pip falls for the pretty and proud Estella, raised by her wretched mother with a cold heart.
Meanwhile, his ambitions to advance up the social ladder are launched. Leaping years forward, the grown Pip (Jeremy Irvine – bringing a brooding intensity to the character) jumps at the opportunity when offered a large sum of money by an anonymous benefactor to move to London and become a gentleman, raising himself to a position where he’s eligible to marry Estella (Holliday Grainger). Olly Alexander is also well-cast as Herbert Pocket, Pip’s effusively cheery London roommate and firm ally.
As Pip is plunged headfirst into the demands of his new station, he frequently butts heads with Bentley Drummle (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), a wealthy youth and heir who has no redeeming personality traits – and who soon becomes a rival for Estella’s attentions. Bold costume design fires some flamboyant, updated quirk into the familiar tale; the wildly curly quiffs and long velvet coats of the trainee gentlemen are more punk rock than staid decorum.
Dickensian social satire firmly intact, Pip slowly learns hard truths through the plot’s twists and surprising revelations about the shallow ephemerality of worldly wealth and status. Dickens rewrote his contentiously sad ending – and we’re left guessing until the last which version Newell will opt for.
Expectations are less than great for a fresh take on this oft-adapted Dickens classic.
No mustiness in this quirky, dark revamp, which rips along at a pace while exuberantly embracing Gothic dramatics.
It’s all very Tim Burton – but eccentric Victoriana is a fitting spin on a familiar tale.