Young orphan Pip is summoned to the home of the eccentric Miss Haversham and charged with the task of being educated by her spoilt charge, Estella. Sometime later, Pip is given a chance to rise from his humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s apprentice thanks to a mysterious benefactor.
Great Expectations. As perennial as rhubarb. Hardly something to hold one’s breath for. But here we have it. The story, then:
Young Pip (plucky orphan) is foisted on his sister, Mrs. Joe (nasty termagant), and her erstwhile husband, Joe (good-hearted rube). When Pip is frightened in a cemetery by a hoary, feral escaped prisoner named Magwitch (misunderstood victim of society), Pip winds up protecting him. Though not out of innate kindness—more like pants-wetting self-interest; more like protecting himself. Anyway, in due time he is shipped off to Miss Havisham (surreal crone) as a plaything. She is, of course, unfeeling, her life having been cauterized by a long ago jilting at the altar, so now she has a sharp chip of black ice where in others you’d find a heart. Staying with her in her dried out womb of a mansion is her adopted daughter, Estella (empty beauty), her other plaything, for whom Pip is to be a complementary bauble, and who—she can be accused of many things, but guile is not one of them—tells Pips that she has no softness, and is, in fact, just a ‘mechanical heart.’ Estella is the masterwork of Miss Havisham’s vengeance, a creation to wreak heartbreak on men, like a kind of German Expressionist doppelganger, like Caligari’s Cesar, like the Rabbi of Prague’s Golem, like Fritz Lang’s False Maria in Metropolis.
Pip, of course, duly falls in love with her, though why is beyond reason as she’s just a vapid shoehorn. Anyway, sometime later, not-quite-as-young Pip gets mysteriously endowed by an anonymous benefactor, with the proviso that he retain the sobriquet ‘Pip,’ and heads to London where he loathes his class and aspires to make something of himself. He is a young man with great expectations. He joins an exclusive club, the Finches, spends money like someone who didn’t earn it, and pines for Estella. I mean, you can love cupcakes, but you’re not in love with cupcakes. Anyway, strangers return, secrets are revealed, bad people are punished, some good people are punished, someone goes up in flames, and all turns out okay in the end. More or less. It’s full of fruited lessons that could be vacuous platitudes in the hands of another writer: Magwitch is a not just a hardened sociopathic bastard (don’t judge a book by it’s cover), a life of wealth is not what it seems (be careful what you wish for), and trying to be something you’re not just makes you a dildo (be true to yourself).
Is it unfair—and pointless— to discuss a film in relation to other past adaptations, to judge it by what it’s not? But, on the other hand, do we need another version of Great Expectations? I mean, there was one just last Christmas. There’s been an Australian one, a silent Danish one, an animated one, and a modern day one starring Ethan Hawke and directed by that nice man who made Y Tu Mama Tambien. There was a superb one by David Lean in 1946. That had Jean Simmons as Estella. Then there was one with Jean Simmons as Miss Havisham. There was another one on TV with Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham, and the one last Christmas on BBC had Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. There was another with Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch, and one with James Mason as Magwitch (with Michael York as Pip). Every decade since there’ve been feature movies, going back to 1917, there’s been at least one version in the cinema. Every decade since there’s been television, going back to 1959, there’s been one on. Usually more. (There were at least 3 in the 80s, and then three more in the 90s alone).
Newell’s addition to the pile opens with the sun gradually appearing through the haze. Then moist and mossy graves. Elemental. Was this going to be one of those carnal adaptations of curriculum classic? Fingernail dirt and mud sex, like the completely wrong Wuthering Heights from last year? But soon, very soon, it reveals itself to be quite the opposite. It’s sort of punky, with a gleefully sinister edge to it: a production design (instruments of torture suspended along otherwise deserted rural lanes) that veers into a little bit of Grand Guignol, and at Pip’s club the Finches are less like 19th century fops than mods, or droogs, or New Romantics hurling baked pigeons. The cast, too, are not—for the most part—going for loamy realism, but instead for something heightened, or in some cases lowered, as though they were doing characters and not being characters. Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Joe is a wonderfully excessive shrew, and Ewen Bremmer (Wemmick) is there, too, acting, as is David Walliams (Uncle Pumblechook), whose performance is broadly comedic—like Little Britain, in fact—which is fine, because the meaty joy of Dickens is his swollen characters with their overwrought names, body doubles for a society that needs some fixing, ciphers who are either unrelentingly bad or incredulously good. It’s not all burlesque, however; Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch) is intensely and humanly desperate, at first, and then desperate and intensely bereft. Robbie Coltrane (Mr. Jaggers) is a study of cold efficiency, and Newell’s use of siblings to play older and younger versions of Pip (Toby and Jeremy Irvine, respectively) and Biddy (Bebe and Jessie Cave, respectively) is inexplicably satisfying.
And then there’s Miss Havisham. Not the leading character, but perhaps the most iconic in all of Dickens. Helena Bonham Carter is an actress of astonishing and singular talents, but she has too much spark in her; she is too wickedly mischievous to be a caul-eyed dusty paramour. As such, it’s a brilliant Helena Bonham Carter performance, but it’s not a Miss Havisham. But who cares? This is a film of play-acting, of extravagant performers going goat on the scenery (except, of course, for the juveniles in the production—not unlike a Christmas panto). It’s fun. It’s good. It won’t change anything. And it’s something that all actors need on their resume.
So is it petty to ask the question? Do we need yet another adaptation of Great Expectations? Of course we do! More Dickens! More Bronte! More Stendahl, for Christ’s sake! Better than an adaptation of some derivative teen novel or a blog from a smug, narcissistic shopaholic.