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The greater the book, the more difficult it is to adapt into film. The density of the material is often near impossible to condense into a reasonable running time, and the audience satisfaction level is never quite achieved when it comes to a widely read as cuts have to be made somewhere to avoid a 5-hour feature length; which is why "from the best-loved story by Charles Dickens" doesn't exactly cement a vote of confidence to the film due to the enormous challenges it faces. And it's a story that's seen the screen many times in the past, once most memorably as a timeless classic in 1946, but the less that is said about the awful 1998 version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow the better. Mike Newell's most current 2012 adaptation can sit quite comfortably between the two in terms of quality, a reliable piece with excellent performances but one that never springs out of its own mediocrity to make a lasting mark or impression.
Pip is a young orphan boy living with his angry, abusive older sister (the excellent Sally Hawkins in a small but entirely terrific role) who not only screams and smacks him around but also her kind and gentle husband Joe (Jason Flemyng). One day whilst he's out visiting his parents' gravesites, he is ambushed by an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes) who offers him a chance to live in exchange for some food, drink, and a file to grind away his shackles. Scared out of his wits, Pip has no problem accepting this scary man's offer, getting the starving guy some pie, booze and the file from his brother-in-law's blacksmith workshop, much to the criminal's deep gratitude. The prisoner is subsequently arrested again by the authorities, and Pip thinks nothing more on the matter. But any halfwit would be able to figure out that since the man is played by an actor of Fiennes' stature and talent, he will surely make a surprise return in the film's later scenes.
Another encounter sees the young Pip inside the run-down mansion of Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), who wants a boy of a similar age to her daughter Estella to keep the young girl entertained. Miss Havisham insists in staying locked away at her estate, forever wearing her enormous white wedding dress in memory of her botched nuptial plans years ago. Even at an alarmingly young age, Pip immediately falls head over heels for Estella who is being groomed by Miss Havisham to become quite the heartbreaker in the future, to be used as a twisted vessel of revenge against the male sex that the wronged Miss Havisham cunningly desires.
Knowing that Pip is only destined to be a blacksmith's apprentice, he is torn away from Estella very early on. Years later he (Jeremy Irvine) is visited by Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), a lawyer based in London who informs that Pip has come into a large fortune thanks to a mysterious benefactor (no prizes for guessing who this is) whose identity must remain anonymous and is to become a gentleman. Having always dreamed of leaving his redundant life of low class, manual labour, he briskly accepts the offer and travels to the capital where the unfamiliar surrounding provides an understandable amount of culture shock to an uneducated country boy. Now that he's got the money and class, he visits the one person he could not forget all these years. Yes, Estella (Holliday Grainger) has all grown up too, but it would appear her heartbreaking ways have not changed one bit. She is convinced she can have no emotions, is incapable of love, and has no heart. Pip is clearly not going to take that as an answer and let the true love of his life get away.
Just why Pip is so hung up on a girl like this is anyone's guess, and to say that it's all down to her beauty isn't a satisfactory enough answer given how much time is devoted to the two of them arguing about love with Pip repetitively proclaiming his undying feelings for her. There must be something more, but the film fails to look further into the development of their attraction. Irvine, still a fresh-face rising star after Spielberg's "War Horse" fares a lot better here, as he has plenty more material and richer substance to process. He starts as the naïve, shy young man, which is why he faces some clashes with the pompous, arrogant young London gentlemen who look down on him. But as wealth works its way into Pip, he gets dangerously close to becoming the kind of person he once resented, the snobby side of him that comes out when the humble Joe comes to visit him in London. And it's a smooth transition that Irvine handles well, and he can deliver even the cheesiest, most cringing dialogue (mostly shared with Estella) with utmost sincerity.
Uptight, proper and a first-class bitch at times, Grainger is highly effective as the cold and distant Estella, although at times she is also successful in putting on the face of longing whenever Pip is in the picture. She and Irvine make a fascinating screen duo, and the prickly, acid-tongued actress provides a nice contrasting balance to the more sensitive Irvine.
But the two outstanding performances that stand out come from the two expected individuals, the crème de la crème of British acting royalty, Carter and Fiennes. Carter, in a role that suits her perfectly, fully embraces her dark, gothic and mysterious Miss Havisham who is clearly suffering from severe psychological damage. Known for playing the kooky and crazy characters, she is once again spot-on as she manipulates and moulds her daughter into an icy, heartless creature. She is so good in fact in her frighteningly huge and dirtied white dress, that she gives all the previous Miss Havishams (Martitia Hunt, Charlotte Rampling, Anne Bancroft, Gillian Anderson to name a few) a run for their money. Her scenes are always fun to watch, as she delightfully chews the scenery, which is why her dramatic end feels even more tragic. Fiennes does make a welcome return in the film's later parts, and his grim, gritty look works well although his connection to Pip is not well established enough to fully convince. His very down-to-earth, humble and quiet portrayal arouses sympathy, and his calm voice of exposition is very useful in filling in the gaps of the somewhat muddled story.
It has a lot to juggle around, and this is where the film often falls spectacularly apart. There are so many characters, events and back stories to squeeze into a tight frame that often these are glossed over and sometimes in clumsy, rushed flashbacks that don't tell us enough. It would appear these complicated characters are connected to each other's fates somehow, but it's spends very little time actually explaining to us just what on earth happened. There's no use having big names like Coltrane, Flemyng and David Walliams in the more minor roles as they come and go without real impact or substantial additions to the story. And then there's the ending - Dickens wrote two versions but without spoiling which route the film decides to take, let's just say it doesn't end on the most satisfying note. As often is the case when books are transferred onto the screen, a lot is lost in translation, an aspect not even the excellent performances or costly production design can truly salvage.
About the film
Great Expectations is a 2012 film which is an adaptation of the Charles Dickins novel of the same name. The film was released at the cinema on 30th November and it has a run time of 128 minutes. Great Expectations is rated 12A.
Young Pip lives in the middle of nowhere with his sister and her husband who is a blacksmith. He's always wanted to make something of himself, be someone better, but knows the chances are extremely slim. However, when Miss Havisham, a strange lady of higher standing, requests him to come to her house, he thinks his chances are looking up. Miss Havisham has a young daughter, Estella and Pip is instantly smitten. Pip hopes he will one day have a chance with Estella even though she is quite harsh and cold.
Later, when Pip has grown up and has finally come to terms with the fact that he is destined to be a blacksmith, he receives sudden and unexpected news that he is to become a gentleman in London with the help of an unnamed benefactor. Pip knows that this is his one chance to make it in the world and begins to become what he has always wanted to be.
Jeremy Irvine as Pip
Toby Irvine as young Pip
Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham
Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch
Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Jaggers
Jason Flemyng as Joe Gargery
Holliday Grainger as Estella
Helena Barlow as young Estella
Ewen Bremner as Wemmick
Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Joe
David Walliams as Uncle Pumblechook
Tamzin Outhwaite as Molly
Daniel Weyman as Arthur Havisham
Jessie Cave as Biddy
What I thought
Great Expectations has been done numerous times in adaptations although I haven't seen any of them, neither have I read the book. Although I knew the simple idea of the plot, I didn't know the story properly before seeing the film.
The two actors playing Pip were brilliant and I now know that they are brothers. Toby Irving plays the younger version of Pip while his big brother Jeremy plays the older Pip. As a young boy, Pip is brave although sometimes a bit careless with what he tries to get away with at home. Early on in the film, he helps out an escaped prisoner with some food and drink even though he knows it is probably a bad idea. Toby Irving is sweet and likeable as young Pip. Then, when Pip grows up, Jeremy plays the part even better. Older Pip is even more likeable, trying his best to do as much as he can with his life. He is also very easy on the eye which of course, made me like him more!
Some of my favourite parts of the film were when Pip goes to visit Miss Havisham and Estella. Helena Bonham Carter was definitely born to play the role of Miss Havisham, due to her eccentric and crazy personality. Dressed in a tattered old wedding dress and never letting sunlight into the house, Miss Havisham is a very interesting character and I loved her development throughout. However, the young girl playing Estella to begin with was hard to like, both her and the character. Helena Barlow has a tough demeanour and is cold in her interactions with Pip. While I know this is how the character is supposed to be, I couldn't help but feel a dislike towards her. The older Estella, played by Holliday Grainger, was better but sticking with the character's traits, she is still quite harsh and cold.
Great Expectations has a fantastic cast list and a fully British cast at that. David Walliams plays a completely different role to what he is used to by being cast as Uncle Pumblechook. Robbie Coltrane plays the solicitor Mr. Jaggers and one of my favourite actors of all time, Ralph Fiennes plays Magwitch, the escaped prisoner. The whole cast of this film helps to make it what it is and as good as it is.
The settings used in this film was also fabulous. Part of the film is set in the countryside, showing the simple way that life was lived there, but also some of the bigger houses and families. The setting is bleak and shows that life there is not the best and people have to get by with what and who they have. Then there is the London setting, which is a mix of dark, dank and dingy compared with the extravagant lives of gentleman. I completely loved the London setting and I think it perfectly showed the life and style of the time in which the film is set.
Overall, between cast, characters, plot and settings, this was a really good film. I thoroughly enjoyed the differences in pace and place, which kept things interesting and exciting while the cast was utterly thrilling to watch. A great film.