Young orphan Pip (Jeremy Irvine) is given a chance to rise from his humble beginnings thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Moving through London’s class ridden world as a gentleman, Pip uses his new found position to pursue the beautiful Estella (Holliday Grainger); a spoilt heiress he’s loved since childhood. Yet the shocking truth behind his great fortune will have devastating consequences for everything he holds dear.
If you’re going to remake a classic movie based on a much-loved novel, the trick is to appeal to devotees of the original work and to reach out to new audiences.
Newell varies the tone from melodramatic to cool, austere and maudlin
Judging by the lukewarm response from the Brits to Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, the latest iteration adapted from the Charles Dickens novel may not satisfy either camp.
Released in the UK last November, the drama grossed about $6 million: not a flop but hardly a ringing endorsement of Newell’s interpretation. I suspect Australian audiences will respond with muted enthusiasm, at best.
As remakes go, it is more entertaining and engaging than Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, but that’s damning it with faint praise.
The tale of thwarted love, dastardly deeds, greed, social status and revenge is lumbered with Helena Bonham Carter’s over-the-top histrionics, Jeremy Irvine’s mostly passive performance and a lack of genuine passion and energy.
Dickens’ loyalists are likely to make unfavourable comparisons between Newell’s film and David Lean’s 1946 masterpiece and, probably, Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version.
The plot, for the benefit of the initiated, revolves around orphan Pip (Toby Irvine as a child, older brother Jeremy as an adult) who lives with his abusive sister (a shrewish Sally Hawkins) and her husband Joe (Jason Flemyng), a gentle, kindly blacksmith. In the opening scene Pip is visiting his parents’ gravestones when he’s pounced on by escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes, sporting a caricatured Cockney accent). Magwitch forces the lad to steal food, brandy and a file to remove his leg irons, is soon arrested and later reappears.
Pip is sent to a crumbling, cobwebbed Gothic mansion owned by the fearsome spinster Miss Havisham (Bonham Carter), still clad in her wedding gown and veil as reminders of catastrophic events that turned her against men, all men. Pip is smitten by Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella, played as a precocious teenager by Helena Barlow in stilted, unconvincing fashion. In ominous words, Havisham cruelly exhorts Estella to 'see if you can break his heart".
Five years later, London solicitor Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) turns up to announce Pip has been left a considerable sum of money by an anonymous benefactor and he must move to London to live the life of a gentleman, but must never know the source of this largesse.
Pip avidly takes to the life of a sybaritic playboy, to the consternation of Joe and, thanks to Miss Havisham, renews acquaintance with the gorgeous but hard-hearted Estella (Holliday Grainger). But he soon discovers he has a rival for her affections in the boorish snob Bentley Drummle (Ben Lloyd-Hughes).
To reveal more would veer into spoiler territory, so suffice to say misfortune after
misfortune is heaped on most of the major characters.
So impressive in War Horse, his first major movie, Jeremy Irvine here keeps his emotions in check apart from several outbursts, rendering Pip as a fairly colourless and less than compelling individual.
In yet another variation of her mad, bad persona, Bonham Carter amps up the Bellatrix Lestrange-like witchiness to a whole new level but is touchingly effective in conveying her character’s remorse as she realises the devastation she has wrought. Coltrane is terrific as the wily, manipulative and devious Jaggers and there are fine cameos from Olly Alexander as Pip’s London chum Herbert Pocket and Ewan Bremner as a sympathetic law clerk.
Newell varies the tone from melodramatic to cool, austere and maudlin. John Mathieson’s wide-screen cinematography is impressive as is the recreation of Victorian London, apart from several obviously fake CGI-created shots of buildings and the skyline.