Only a fool would try to improve on David Lean’s Great Expectations. The Dickens classic has been remade and recycled numerous times, but every attempt is overshadowed by the definitive 1946 Lean masterpiece. Here it is again, respectfully mounted by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), whose take is simple. He follows the novel, but without flair or originality. The result is a respectful but uninspired movie that is more like a TV special, beautifully photographed but unevenly cast. It’s not an unsalvageable disaster on the level of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, but I still spent half of its languid running time looking at the screen and the other half glancing at my watch.
The serviceable but unexciting screenplay by David Nicholls (he’s currently updating Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, as though John Schlesinger didn’t do a masterful enough job in the 1967 film with Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates) is like a highlighted outline of the novel’s elaborate plot. It follows the hardscrabble life of a naive young orphan named Pip who lives in the marshlands of the Thames with his sour, abusive, mean-spirited harridan of a sister (a perfect role for Sally Hawkins) and her kindly wimp of a husband, Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng). One day in the bleak graveyard on the moors, a desperate escaped convict named Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes, grizzled beyond recognition) attacks the boy but offers to spare his life in exchange for a file to remove his prison chains.
Unaware of how this accidental encounter will affect his future, Pip is dispatched against his will to the creepy estate of the eccentric Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham-Carter, so grossly hammy she thinks she’s in a Tim Burton horror-comedy). Surrounded by rats and cobwebs, the mysterious and decidedly loony Miss Havisham still lives in the squalid, rotting wedding gown she was wearing on the day she was abandoned at the altar. Pip regards her with awe as he falls under the spell of her enchanting ward, Estella, played without much charm by newcomer Holliday Grainger; she only makes you miss the ravishing Jean Simmons, who played the part to great acclaim in the David Lean film. The unmistakable memory of her regal, ethereal beauty throws this version off-balance, and so does the elliptical loopiness of the great Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham.
Fortunately, the film has the good luck to star Jeremy Irvine, the impossibly handsome young actor who played the lead in War Horse, as a riveting Pip who grows in stature when, out of the blue, he’s bestowed with a generous endowment by a secret benefactor and sent to London to become a gentleman. Instead of learning the value of becoming a real man and leaving his humble country roots behind, he turns into an insufferable little snob, paying a big price for trying to be someone else, tortured with an unrequited passion for his long-lost Estella. Bringing a refreshing lack of sentimentality to a familiar role that is often overplayed, Mr. Irvine is a star in the making. One of literature’s great and most beloved books hits the right marks and is hugely enhanced by technology that creates a remarkably grim, filthy and striking image of 19th-century London that could easily have been conjured by Sweeney Todd.
If only the script matched the visual splendor. The early scenes in the pigsty Pip calls home are staged for laughs but only seem clumsy, while the later scenes in London under the tutelage of lawyer Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) just drag on without energy, chalking up scenes like check marks on a wall full of storyboards. To get the full impact, you must rent, buy, beg for or borrow the 1946 Lean original. Still, if your own expectations are not too high, you crave period-costume drama and you’re one of those unfortunate people who refuses to watch anything in glorious black-and-white, this Great Expectations is worth the time and effort.
WRITTEN BY: David Nicholls
DIRECTED BY: Mike Newell
STARRING: Toby Irvine, Jason Flemyng and William Ellis
RUNNING TIME: 128 min.