The 2012 filmic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, comes to us care of director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco). Adapting Dickens’ novel to screen successfully is no easy feat, but it’s one that other directors, including David Lean and Alfonso Cuarón, attempted long before Newell. The greatest of these three versions is unquestionably David Lean’s 1946 adaptation, but then, Lean had the knack for Dickens, as evidenced by both his visually moving Great Expectations and his equally respectable Oliver Twist (1948). My initial reaction to the news that we’d soon have another cinematic look at London’s upper crust through the eyes of blacksmith’s apprentice-turned-gentleman, Pip Pirrip, was honestly one of general disinterest. But the truth is, I do so love the novel and I thought, Hey, who am I to discredit this thing without giving it a chance?
So, skeptical though I am of any reworking of Great Expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Newell’s effort. He deftly blends a tone of dramatic realism with a cartoonishness that’s to be expected of any tale featuring characters named Mr. Pumberchook and Mr. Wopsle. In no small part this owes to brilliant casting, as Newell and his team put together an admirable ensemble cast populated by such seemingly incongruous notables as Ralph Fiennes and David Walliams. As great as the bulk of the ensemble is as a whole, though, it’s really Jason Flemyng’s heartbreaking performance as Pip’s lovable but countrified uncle Joe that steals the show in my book.
That said, the film is hardly a masterpiece on par with David Lean’s if we’re being totally honest. Major problem I had with the film is that I never really bought Helena Bonham Carter’s Miss Havisham, who is neither wholly pitiable nor contemptible—the two traits I most commonly associate with the character. In turn, the character’s manipulation of Pip, which is essential to the narrative, feels forced.
Of course, my other major problem with the film may in fact account for the unnaturalness of Havisham and Pip’s interactions in a way. And that problem is that the film just moves far too fast. Every scene feels like it could have used another five or ten minutes to be wholly effective. Sure, I understand this could simply be the result of trying to cram a massive novel’s content into a two-hour film, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that, once the film opens, it hits the ground running and never stops. As a matter of fact, the film even opens with Pip running, and the last shot ends so abruptly it feels almost like an accidental edit. What’s more, the speed at which the narrative proceeds has the added effect of affording us virtually no time to linger on the stunning visuals from Gladiator cinematographer, John Mathieson, which manage to capture both the grandeur of the English countryside and the filthiness of 19th Century London’s streets with ease.
What this boils down to, though, is that my biggest complaint about the movie is really that I just wanted more of it, like an hour more if I could. And that’s far more of a recommendation than it is detraction. So my overall appraisal of Mike Newell’s Great Expectations is that it is most definitely worth a watch, and you can currently check it out on Blu-ray (which is the only way to watch it if you’re to fully appreciate the cinematography, of course) and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.