Just by reading the title, and by the reputation of the novel, Great Expectations is a story that naturally generates a high expectation for any adaptation. As to whether or not this expectation is fulfilled or frustrated is up to the Dickens’ purist, but whatever the personal belief, the primary elements of the iconic novel are definitely well represented in this film as we witness an orphan change to gentleman, a prisoner grow into a benefactor, the haughty become humble and the self-centred brought to repentance.
This rendition, directed by Mike Newell, is a British made adaptation of this thirteenth novel from Charles Dickens. As Dickens himself thought it was his best work, calling it “a very fine idea”, it is no wonder that this is around the sixteenth adaptation of the story for film and television.
The story is centred around a young orphan, Philip Pirrip or “Pip” (Jeremy Irvine), who is being raised by his blacksmith brother-in-law in Kent, England. In his youth he has an encounter with a prisoner, Abel Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), who asks and receives help from the young Pip. This seems like an isolated act of kindness but has a huge impact on Pip’s adulthood. During this time he is also hired by a wealthy spinster named Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) to entertain her ‘playing’ with her adopted daughter, Estella (Holliday Grainger). There is a deep friendship that is formed between the two ill-suited children which causes much turmoil and unrequited love because Pip is an orphan and a common labourer and Estella is a lady of pedigree. Pip unexpectedly gets sponsored by a mysterious benefactor, which he assumes is Miss Havisham, and is given the opportunity to live in London and become a gentleman. He sets out to become a gentleman and to win Estella.
For those who are familiar with the book and for those who consider Miss Havisham a great icon, they may be disappointed to see that Helena Bonham Carter in this role. For such a famous character she is most likely the most interesting and anticipated character in the book, besides the beautiful Estella, and it feels that placing the very recognisable Bonham Carter in this role draws away from the character. On that point it is a little disappointing, but perhaps a familiar face makes this accessible to the non-Dickens’ expert and those who have not been forced to read the book as part of their school reading lists. The other characters and portrayals thereof are wonderfully fresh and entertaining, especially for a period piece, while the etiquette and portrayal of personality in speech and action can often come across as boring, and unless you understand the culture it can exclude the viewer.
In some more modern day versions of old classics the grandeur and grace of old England can be overrun by the need for speed, so much so that it just turns into a regular rom-com dressed in period costumes. Considering that Dickens originally intended the written version of Great Expectations to be twice as long we should count ourselves luckily that we are not left with a four hour version, this is therefore a pretty balanced period film. The script, performance and cinematography is lovely, showing the beauty of the English country side as well as the chaotic industrialized London and is a true reflection of the time.
It has been said that ‘this is not the best version of Great Expectations but it is not the worst either’. This adaptation certainly has room for improvement but has the potential to be one of the truest renditions.