Tuesday 23 October 2012

Great Expectations (2012) - Mike Newell

First a confession: I have never read Great Expectations.  Yes, this may seem tragic, but Dickens' novel has never been on my book list.  With only a brief notion of the plot, I came to Mike Newell's adaptation blind.

Yet even without reading the novel, it's clear that large swathes of the plot are missing.  The bare bones are present and easy enough to follow, but there's about as much detail as a Wikipedia plot summary.  Dickens originally wrote the piece for his weekly journal and whilst the film follows a similarly episodic structure, it speeds along at a swift pace allowing little screen time for narrative development or character motivation.  The script, too, has little Dickensian eloquence, even missing out some key quotes (so I’m told).  Cramming such a dense novel into two hours has turned a richly layered narrative into a fractured, limp shell.

It’s a very nice looking shell though.  Vast English estates, mist smothered marshland and endless shingle beaches predominate the first half, whilst the narrative turn to the city reveals a detailed vision of London that we can practically smell and taste.  Miss Havisham’s estate perfectly illustrates a sense of decaying beauty – gothic architecture strangled by overgrown gardens, dusty interiors speckled with subtle lighting.  This is to be expected from the director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the similarities are clear.

Sadly Helena Bonham-Carter’s depiction of Miss Havisham doesn’t live up to her surroundings.  Frail and small beneath her rag-like bridal gown, she simply plays her usual wide-eyed witchy self.  Ralph Fiennes brings some Shakespearean intensity to Magwitch, Jeremy Irvine is intentionally wet as the boyish Pip, Hollyday Grainger gives a poised performance as Estella and Olly Alexander is comically camp as Herbert.  Their costumes were extravagant and almost cartoonish – particularly the quiffed young gentleman – only underlining the diminished caricature on show.  Prior knowledge of the novel is not necessary to see that the film’s narrative is too shallow to allow any depth of characterisation.  Like Miss Havisham, these cinematic characters were merely ghosts of their literary counterparts.


Watch: Great Expectations is on general release from 30th November.