The past few years have seen an increase in creative adaptations of classic novels. Mike Newell's Great Expectations may seem uninspired compared to challenging and inventive films like Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights, down to the easy casting of Helena Bonham Carter as a crazy old woman and a score that sometimes sounds lifted piece by piece from Pride & Prejudice. Newell surprises, though, and has imagined a solid and remarkably captivating and evocative counterpart.
For those who never took freshman year English, Great Expectations is the story of a common orphan, Pip (Toby and Jeremy Irvine), who lives with his horrid shrew of a sister (Sally Hawkins)and kind-hearted father figure husband (an excellent Jason Flemyng). One day, Pip runs into an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes) who terrifies him into stealing food and a file; the convict takes a liking to him before he is recaptured and taken away.
Pip is later selected by neighborhood freak Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter, stretching herself) to play with her adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger). He believes Miss Havisham wants to mold him into a gentleman so he can marry and provide for Estella, until she helps him become a blacksmith and bids him goodbye. Years later, Pip falls into a large fortune from an anonymous benefactor, and after making himself presentable, he returns to Estella.
I've been careful to limit my excitement since Newell's involvement was announced. 20 years ago he would have been the perfect choice, but after he attempted to make an action scene out of every dramatic beat in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and bastardized the poetic beauty of Love in the Time of Cholera, I'd lost faith. Great Expectations, though, is a return to form for a once-upon-a-time master of the genre. While it occasionally suffers from genre confusion (Bonham Carter's scenes play out more comedically than they perhaps should have), his habit of making things more action-y than they really are actually enhances the material here - the fire and boat scene are a thousand times more adrenaline- packed than in the novel - and the enthralling pacing, expertly crafted visuals, and lively dialogue and performances add up to a very fine film.
The visual aspects deserve special mention for how much they bring to the movie. It feels as if the cinematography and art direction are working to illustrate and expand on the writing, rather than simply constructing a picturesque background (which Newell was guilty of in Cholera). Scenes at Pip's home look heavenly, with golden lightning and wide shots making his world look endless and welcoming. By contrast, when he becomes a gentleman, close-ups, dreary costumes and dark, windowless rooms contribute to a more claustrophobic and icy atmosphere. The cleverness of the lighting is particularly pronounced when Pip and Estella reunite after years: we see a close-up of Irvine, with only darkness behind him, then one of Grainger in a hallway lit by brassy lanterns, positioned almost as if they are lighting a path for him to follow. The last time we see Estella, as a changed woman open to Pip's affections, is the first time we see her in a wide open space. These visual cues are simple and unintrusive, but enhance subtext and recreate the poetry of Dickens' novel.
Irvine is a capable and likable enough lead, but the film belongs to the supporting cast. Bonham Carter's interpretation of Miss Havisham is intriguing, if not perfectly executed. It recalls her performance in Big Fish, where she toes the line between outlandish and pathetic. Grainger's Estella is beautifully acted - her delivery of "I am what you made me" is chilling. Jessie Cave and particularly Jason Flemyng give adorably heartfelt and rustic performances, while Olly Alexander is hilarious and brings heaps of life to a normally dull character. The true star, though, is Ralph Fiennes. It's a shame this didn't get an Oscar push, because with a strong narrative and a proper campaign, he could have been a serious threat. Fiennes completely sinks into his character; there isn't a trace of his past performances as well-groomed, eloquent gentleman. He's frightening and savage, but oddly sympathetic, and in his more intimate scenes he absolutely devastates. There are memories of an entire life behind his eyes. Without a doubt this is one of his best performances and sadly it seems it will go unrecognized.
It's not quite a perfect film - it's very short and so some characters and themes get lost in the shuffle, and certain tonal shifts feel jarring and inappropriate - but it's a damn good one. Newell seems to have finally found a functional dynamic for a period piece, a happy balance between contemplative and spirited. Due as well to his phenomenal cast and production team, he's done a wonderful job of bringing a difficult and gloomy novel to life.