Feels like we only go backwards – Great Expectations review


By Simon Miraudo
March 4, 2013

Following on from Alfonso Cuaron‘s modern update of Great Expectations, Mike Newell becomes the latest director (and second Harry Potter helmer) to try his hand at Charles Dickens’ classic novel. He returns the tale to its 19th century roots, and casts notorious scene gobblers Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, and David Walliams. Sacha Baron Cohen was, presumably, busy. The score is deafening. The camerawork is discombobulating. The prose remains lovely. You have to go out of your way to not make this story work.

The soggy Jeremy Irvine – this is, sadly, the only adjective that suits – plays Pip, a blacksmith rescued from a life of poverty by an anonymous benefactor. He leaves his small village and heads to London, where he is ordered to live the life of a debaucherous “gentleman.” Pip suspects the money has been donated by millionaire hermit Miss Havisham (Bonham Carter), who shut herself off from the world after being left at the altar on day of her nuptials. Still adorned in her decrepit wedding dress, she once summoned young Pip (Toby Irvine) to her mansion and demanded he play with her refined daughter, Estella (Helena Barlow). It’s now years later, and debutante Estella (Holliday Grainger) is ready for a wealthy suitor to take her hand. The newly groomed Pip would very much like to be that person.


But, of course, the ghosts of his youth return to haunt him. The ramifications of a past encounter with an ex-con named Magwitch (Fiennes, doing his best impression of The Mighty Boosh‘s cockney villain The Hitcher) reverberate through Pip’s adult life. Estella is also still carrying a chip on her shoulder. She treats him frostily, her heart made eternally cold by the viciously spurned Miss Havisham. Dickens made few missteps in his creative career, though one of his biggest is surely the final act of Great Expectations, in which revelation is piled upon revelation (and laborious explanation piled upon laborious explanation). Screenwriter David Nicholls doesn’t exactly make it go down any smoother; Newell merely imposes some disorienting, dream-like camerawork to differentiate the flashbacks. I lost interest much earlier.

There’s a great number of fine thesps littered through the picture, including Sally Hawkins, Jason Flemyng, and Robbie Coltrane. Ultimately, the film is hoisted upon Jeremy Irvine’s shoulders, and as was proven in War Horse, he can scarcely be trusted to make already-whiny characters more appealing. Irvine the younger (they are brothers) does far better on the screen. Both Estellas were suitably chilly. Everyone has to act in the shadow of Bonham Carter and Fiennes, however. Sure, you can hardly blame them for doing what they do. That’s exactly why Newell hired them. But if we’re already familiar with Great Expectations, the least he could have done was surprise us with different, more peculiar interpretations of characters as iconic as Havisham and Magwitch. You know what you’re getting with this movie. Perhaps some will appreciate a nicely decorated, predictable take on a beloved book. I’d rather something riskier.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Great Expectations arrives in Australian cinemas March 7, 2013.

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