Great Expectations: Toronto Review

Helena Bonham Carter
Vivid characterizations from Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter are the highlights of Mike Newell's traditional retelling of the classic Dickens novel.

Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes top the ensemble in Mike Newell's screen version of the much-filmed Charles Dickens novel.

TORONTO - Superb BBC adaptations in recent years of Bleak House and Little Dorrit have suggested that television might be the optimum way to go in terms of translating the work of Charles Dickens in a format that allows his descriptive powers to take full flight and his intricate plotting to breathe. But given that the Beeb’s take on Great Expectations last year was a disappointment, director Mike Newell makes a solid case for big-screen presentation with an assured version that’s no less entertaining for being quite conventional.

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Screenwriter David Nicholls has done a tidy job of distilling the novel into just over two hours with only the occasional hint of rush and no drastic loss of incident or detail. After some uncertainty in the early going – with alarm bells set off by caricatured turns in minor roles from Sally Hawkins (hysterically shrewish) and David Walliams (a prissy fop who seems dropped in from a Little Britain sketch) – it becomes a pleasure to surrender to Dickens’ masterful storytelling.

A crucial aspect that Newell gets right from the start is cementing the long-range connection between the young orphan Pip (Toby Irvine) and escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), which will shape many of the tale’s key events. Caked in mud and growling in a common-as-muck accent, Fiennes is feral and frightening. Sneaking up on the cherubic lad in the cemetery, Magwitch terrifies him into fetching food, whiskey and a blacksmith’s file to saw through his prison shackles. While the boy acts out of fear, Magwitch is starved for kindness, and an exchange of glances as he’s recaptured conveys his gratitude.

Along with Fiennes’ Magwitch, a touching figure of unexpected integrity and enormous pathos, the film’s other juicy character turn is the Miss Havisham of Helena Bonham Carter. Wearing what looks like an entire Alexander McQueen collection (the smart costumes are actually by Beatrix Pasztor), she’s a goth ghost bride, younger than the usual crone interpretation, but riddled with decay. Bonham Carter reanimates one of classic literature’s greatest inventions as dotty and capricious, yet lucid enough to make calculated mischief and to show heartfelt remorse when faced with the coldness she has bred in her ward Estella.

Played a little stiffly as a precocious brat by Helena Barlow but with more naturalness from adolescence through adulthood by the lovely Holliday Grainger, Estella is a worthy target for Pip’s unrequited affections. She keeps him at a distance by insisting that the ice in her veins won’t allow her to love. But her feelings are poignantly evident for the blacksmith’s apprentice-turned-gentleman by an anonymous benefactor. (Nicholls finds a middle ground between Dickens’ original and revised, consolatory ending to the central thwarted romance.)

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When the older Pip first appears as a swarthy teen swinging away at an anvil amid a shower of sparks, his long tresses dripping with sweat, a worry surfaces that Newell has refashioned the book’s central character as a Taylor Kitsch-type hunk for the youth market. Thankfully, that initial impression is deceiving. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), who takes over from his younger brother in the role, is not the most expressive actor but brings the right quality of warm-hearted vulnerability. What the performance, and the film as a whole undersells, is the personal compromises Pip is willing to make in his hunger for social standing.

Instead, from the opening shot of his younger self, hurtling toward the graves of his parents and siblings, the adaptation pushes the theme of Pip yearning to fill the void of his lost family. This yields delicate moments with his brother-in-law Joe (Jason Flemyng) and Magwitch, both of them surrogate fathers; with Miss Havisham, a ready-made stand-in for a crazy aunt; with the avuncular figure of legal clerk Wemmick (Ewan Bremner); and with Pip’s London buddy Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander), who becomes a brother to him.

On the less benevolent side, Robbie Coltrane plays effectively against type as Jaggers, the mercenary London lawyer whose practice serves to link several main characters.

One of the strengths of this version is its impressive sense of place. Cinematographer John Mathieson lends the rural marshland setting of the opening a desolate beauty that serves the story well. And production designer Jim Clay’s detailed recreation of early Victorian London is suitably grimy, full of seedy locales and streets paved with mud, teeming with rowdy humanity. Also atmospherically rendered is Miss Havisham's crumbling mansion, surrounded by overgrown foliage. Richard Hartley’s music provides fluid underscoring for the story’s shifts through melodrama, romance, mystery and tragedy.

Newell’s film is not going to supplant David Lean’s 1946 version as the definitive screen iteration of the novel. Nor does it dig for contemporary echoes in the manner of Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 modernization. But audiences looking to revisit this enduring story as well as those encountering it for the first time could do a lot worse.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala)

Production companies: BBC Films, Number 9 Films

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner, Jason Flemyng, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, David Walliams, Olly Alexander, Toby Irvine, Helena Barlow, Tamzin Outhwaite, Jessie Cave, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, William Ellis

Director: Mike Newell

Screenwriter: David Nicholls, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Producers: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, Emanuel Michael, David Faigenblum

Executive producers: Zyga Kamasa, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Mike Newell, Ed Hart, Jana Edelbaum, Cliff Curtis, Charlotte Larson, Christine Langan

Director of photography: John Mathieson

Production designer: Jim Clay

Music: Richard Hartley

Costume designer: Beatrix Pasztor

Editor: Tariq Anwar

Sales: HanWay Films

No rating, 128 minutes