From the Dickens story about the coming into fortune of Pip a blacksmith’s apprentice, Magwitch his benefactor, and Estella the love of his life.
The film with all others must be compared is David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. That film is in black and white and is threaded with exciting cliff hangers and is reputed to capture Dicken’s spirit; after all his novels were initially serialised and illustrated in newspapers. The Lean film is exhuberant and unconcerned with the perils of editing. This latest film follows on from last year’s BBC adaptation of Great Expectations which starred Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham. In this film Miss Haversham is played by Helena Bonham Carter who looks like she’s auditioning for an old rock music video. I’m not sure that Helena Bonham Carter’s twitchiness is apt for this role. There is great story in Haversham’s ritual of grief and revenge, here we just get a film set trying to approximate to our conventional imaginings from the book, there’s no attempt to get beyond the almost pantomimic familiarities. She looks like she’s gurning for one of her partner’s films, let’s say Tim Burton’s “The Mad Bride”.
Pip himself is a snob, the fact that it’s easy to understand his social climbing nastiness does not mitigate the offence. John Mills in the Lean film allows Pip a certain redemption, his gentlemanly conscience subsequently bothers him as he later treats Joe Gargery properly whereas Jeremy Irvine as Pip merely changes his attitude to Gargery because changed circumstances compel a minimal decency.
This latest Great Expectations is populated with actors who try to outdo each other in Victorian weirdness, which is more frenetic than imaginative. Estella also goes through the well worn routines we know from other adaptations, it’s as if she is merely trying to get a bit ahead of us reading the lines for her. Robbie Coltrane plays Jaggers the lawyer, his lawyer’s office has none of the dense weirdness that Lean’s black and white film showed us. Minor characters seem to have more freedom than in previous versions. Sally Hawkins relishes playing the brutalized termagant trapped with the simple Gargery, she lashes out in quotidian frustration (admittedly this is not a demanding role). Jason Flemyng as Joe Gargery is a bit more complicated than the holy fool played by Leans’ Bernard Miles, he rejects Jagger’s offer of payment for Pip with wounded pride.
The famous graveyard scene in Lean’s film is impossible to beat, the wind bleakly dramatizes the black and whites as Pip gets into a Wordsworthian terror about the surroundings marshlands. It reminds me of that scene in The Prelude when young Wordsworth steals a boat and his guilt becomes a threatening mountain. In this latest film this scene looks like museum workers dressing up for a picnic.