Mike Newell’s attempt at Dickens’s mighty tale of betterment and destiny never quite beats its memorable opening in which Ralph Fiennes emerges from nowhere as a magnificent Magwitch to seize the hero.
Just as all versions of Great Expectations can expect to be compared with David Lean’s magisterial monochrome masterpiece, so Newell’s version steps up with a cast of reliables and a fresh-faced newcomer in Jeremy (War Horse) Irvine as Pip.
A beautiful-looking film and one that oozes atmosphere, this latest incarnation lends hope to the notion that youngsters may be spurred on to read great literature by way of accessible cinema. And while this is accessible it is never shallow.
Newell and screenwriter David (One Day) Nicholls retain the core of Dickens’s novel and the primary setpieces. Fiennes is suitably grizzled and scarred – physically and mentally – by his experiences in prison. Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) sits like a mad-eyed sphinx amidst the ruins of her wedding – a living corpse in a mausoleum of the desiccated, the decayed and the cobwebbed. And Sally Hawkins is almost unrecognisable as the harridan Mrs Joe.
Newell is careful to present contrasts and nothing impresses more than the gauche young Pip’s entry into the maelstrom of London and the machinations of learned men who know all of his secrets. The keeper of those secrets is Jaggers, subtly underplayed by Robbie Coltrane. A story of money and the corruption it brings, it also emerges as a masterful evocation of the Victorian class divide. Ben Lloyd-Hughes enjoys a fine breakthrough as vicious dandy Bentley Drummle.
If the Newell/Nicholls portrait of Victoriana has a failing it is that it lacks grime. Magwitch is the living embodiment of this at the film’s start but the locales often appears too polished. Still, Jason Flemyng as humble blacksmith Joe Gargery personifies goodness and is the fixed point around which Pip rotates.
All in all, a salutary attempt.