Film Review: Great Expectations

A mysterious benefactor lifts a rural orphan from poverty in a new version of the Charles Dickens classic.

Filmed many times before, notably by David Lean in 1946, Great Expectations remains fascinating for its odd and oddly compelling plot. Writing at the peak of his powers, Charles Dickens fashioned a coming-of-age tale that hinged on preposterous coincidences, and yet at the same time delved deeply into uncomfortable moral and psychological issues.

The movie opens in the marshes of Kent, introducing Pip (Toby Irvine), a young orphan living with blacksmith Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng). A graveyard encounter with escaped convict Abel Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) puts into play events that will change Pip's life. He is summoned to the crumbling estate of Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), where he is taunted by her niece Estella (Holliday Grainger). She claims to have no feelings, having been trained by Havisham to break hearts.

Pip nonetheless swears his love for her before he is brought to London, where Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), a solicitor, informs him that an anonymous patron is sponsoring his education as a gentleman. Pip (now played by Jeremy Irvine, Toby's older brother) suffers class indignities and a thwarted love, but also lets wealth turn his head from his early friends.

This being Dickens, things keep happening, believable and not, as the story circles in on itself until Pip finds himself back where he started. It's a journey that has inspired countless artists, good and bad, but few have been able to capture the novel's baffling cruelty and injustice.

Adapted by novelist David Nicholls (One Day), this version is serviceable enough, hitting all the expected plot points and giving each of the major players some screen time, however brief. While it never matches the scope and power of the novel, the screenplay does remain true to its tone and spirit.

Mike Newell's direction is careful and a bit stodgy, keeping viewers at an emotional distance instead of pulling them into the story. Occasionally, scenes are staged with economy and skill, as when Pip first meets the enigmatic Molly (a canny Tamzin Outhwaite). Others fall prey to “Masterpiece Theatre” clichés, like a ball that's all waltzes and glowering looks.

Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) looks a bit lost as the older Pip, ceding the screen to just about anyone in the frame. Similarly, Holliday Grainger displays little depth as Estella. Granted, she's playing someone spoiled and cold, but Estella isn't worth pursuing if she's a total blank.

The showiest roles go to Harry Potter veterans. (Newell directed Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.) Bonham Carter's Miss Havisham is another in her growing list of Goth turns, while Fiennes brings wonderful line readings but not much menace to Magwitch. Coltrane is aces as Jaggers, a stoic and perplexing figure.

Great Expectations looks polished and professional even when it shouldn't, during its cemetery scenes, for example, or in a river encounter with paddle wheeler. A little more grit and a lot less of Richard Hartley's overly insistent score could have enlivened a movie that too often feels rote.