To begin, heresy: Great Expectations is one of Charles Dickens’ weaker novels—too heavily plotted, with a surfeit of mysteries and revelations at the expense of both plausibility and character. Those very qualities, however, make it, along with Oliver Twist, Dickens’ most readily adaptable book. It’s been a mere 15 years since the last major film version, a contemporary retelling directed by Alfonso Cuarón, which starred Ethan Hawke and Gywneth Paltrow. Hell, there was a three-part BBC miniseries as recently as 2011 (with Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone, among others). So here it comes again, and does this iteration have anything new, fresh, or innovative to recommend it? Nope. Just different actors in the roles, and the same rote competence director Mike Newell has brought to everything from Four Weddings And A Funeral to Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. (He and Cuarón have a lot to talk about.)
As Pip, the blacksmith’s apprentice who’s transformed into a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor, Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) lacks the diffident charisma John Mills brought to the character in David Lean’s beloved 1946 rendition (which remains the gold standard). Nor does newcomer Holliday Grainger light up the screen as Estella, the young woman who’s been raised from childhood to break men’s hearts, most notably Pip’s. Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter do solid work as, respectively, escaped convict Abel Magwitch and reclusive spinster Miss Havisham, though Bonham Carter’s association with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride puts an unintentionally goofy spin on the poignant spectacle of a woman who hasn’t removed her wedding dress since the day she was jilted. The film’s finest performances are in the margins, with Robbie Coltrane lending his ample weight to Mr. Jaggers, the dryly pragmatic attorney in charge of Pip’s fortune, and Olly Alexander having enormous fun with Pip’s roommate and friend, Herbert Pocket, the part that made a star of the young Alec Guinness.
Because Dickens was such a master of pure narrative—even in cases like this, where he gets a tad carried away with sudden rug-pulls—even lackluster adaptations remain thoroughly watchable. And Newell, working from a screenplay by David Nicholls (Starter For 10), does his best to make emotional sense of the impossible relationship between Pip and the allegedly loveless Estella, which has confounded better directors than he. Dickens famously revised the ending, allegedly at the urging of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the author who wrote “It was a dark and stormy night,” and in whose honor an annual bad-writing contest now exists); this version concludes on a slightly ambiguous note that’s as faithful to Dickens’ uncertainty as possible—a vast improvement over Lean’s ending, which departs heavily from that of the book. But that minor adjustment doesn’t justify what remains, in the end, a thoroughly needless rehash.