Barely 9 months have gone past since a new adaptation of Dickens’ favourite, Great Expectations, hit our screens (in that case, our TV screens) with a BBC version which promoted the rather spooky Gillian Anderson, better known for alien hunting on The X-Files, and a pouty-lipped Douglas Booth as Pipi in a classic period drama which gave us a reason to stay in and get cosy last Christmas. Now, Great Expectations, the story of a blacksmith’s apprentice who is left a huge fortune, enabling him to rise from his humble beginnings and become a man of “great expectations”, and a heartbroken bride, jilted at the altar, left to wreak revenge through the stagnated misery of her life, has been adapted again, this time on the big screen, adapted by the author of One Day, David Nicholls, and directed by BAFTA-winning director of Four Weddings and A Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mike Newell.
Last night the film premiered at the lavish closing ceremony of the BFI’s 56th British Film Festival at London’s Odeon Leicester Square. The red carpet was out, the flash bulbs were going like crazy, the stars, amongst them Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger and Robbie Coltrane made it out in spite of the rain and I, yes little me, was there, on the red carpet with them! Yep, I managed to somehow acquire myself some tickets in the 20 seconds in which they were reported to have sold out, and therefore made it as one of the first people to see this lavish new adaptation.
The new adaptation is suitably gloomy, wonderfully sumptuous, and sensuously spectacular. I cannot help but compare it to last year’s BBC version, and for the creativity of sets, the transmission of atmosphere right off the Dickensian page, for its depiction of foggy dirty London and the grand dilapidated house of Miss Havisham, the film wins on all fronts. I adored some of the details – the huge, rotting banquet table teeming with mice and rats, and the dusty great dressing room of Miss Havisham, packed full of fading grandeur, like the heartbroken bride herself.
I also preferred the casting in the film. Jeremy Irvine’s Pip is an altogether more likeable characterisation, as the youth and naivety of Irvine (previously starring as the lead in Spielberg’s altogether more vomit-worthy War Horse) worked well in giving us a Pip who is a forever innocent pawn in the cynical love game played by Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. By contrast, Douglas Booth for the BBC was altogether too perfect looking, with his model stature and pert pouty lips – he was difficult to warm to, although as refined gentleman, he surely looked the part. With Irvine we see perfectly portrayed the Gentleman Pip always feeling a little uncomfortable, only too aware that money has catapulted him into the world of finery and etiquette, always slightly nervous that his Blacksmith past may come out.
It will not surprise anyone that Bonham-Carter is perfect in the role of Miss Havisham, with her wide glazed eyes portraying all of the mental instability which HB-C plays so well, her crazy hair and great dusty gown displaying every inch the melodramatic victim-turned villain, and as for the pivotal scene where her dusty robes catch fire so suddenly and so quickly to her screams of agony and her muttered apologies as her life fades away – brilliant. Fantastic too was the ever resplendent, exquisitely elegant Holliday Grainger as Estella, looking every inch the beauty who ensnared Pip into her web of heartbreak. While she played the part with aplomb, I do however feel that through the sweetness and emotion which appears to radiate so naturally from her angelic face, it was hard to believe that inside she was the ice-queen she liked to portray – or perhaps that is the point – try as she may to be hard and loveless, Pip alone can see that behind her emotionless chatter, lay a beating heart ready to be released. Mention should finally go to Robbie Coltrane as the lawyer, Jagger (although I found it hard to get Harry Potter’s Hagrid out of my head whenever he spoke) and Ralph Fiennes as a very rough-round-the-edges Magwitch – his accent was brilliant. I had reservations about casting funny-man David Walliams as Pip’s Uncle Pumblechook though – he was the same as ever, and made the whole thing feel a bit Brit-comedy.
So casting and visuals asides, where this film was lacking, in my opinion, was in its loss of some great Dickensian details and characterisations. It’s inevitable that when trying to reduce a great and much-loved work of fiction into a two hour cinematographic stint, you will lose a lot of details, but some, to my mind, were really missed. Where for example was Dolge Orlick, the murderous character whose menacing and relentless vendetta against Pip adds such tension throughout the story. Where also was the murder (by Orlick) of Pip’s sister – her death was merely mentioned, but not shown, and overall I felt more time could have been given to this brilliant Dickensian character. There were also at times short scenes which appeared to play homage to the detail of the original text but didn’t lead anywhere. For example the film showed Pip setting out his intention to use his remaining fortune to buy his friend, Herbert Pocket, a partnership, but then we never saw any follow up scene whereby the partnership was secured – the film was a bit patchy like this. But then, one can’t complain too much – I’m sure we would have moaned more if we’d been sitting in the cinema for the full 5 hours which a fuller adaptation would require.
Overall, Newell’s new adaptation is another positive exploration of classic English literature presented with a fine British cast and beautifully crafted cinematography throughout. It is also highly appropriate for the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth. And as for seeing the film with the stars in situ and after a walk up the red carpet – priceless.