Arriving mere months after a miniseries version also presented by the BBC, “Great Expectations” is a passable feature-length adaptation that does little to burnish the estimable screen legacy of a Dickens classic. Working from a tightly compressed screenplay by David Nicholls, director Mike Newell strikes the beats of a deservedly oft-told tale with dour competence but little in the way of dramatic inspiration or visual flair. Still, juicy performances by Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes in the designated scene-stealing roles of Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch should prove enticing enough for arthouse patrons and Anglophiles to respond with favor.
Fiennes and Bonham Carter made a memorably witchy pair as Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films (one of which, 2005’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” was directed by Newell), and the actors bring their dark gifts to two scarcely less frightening roles here. Once again Fiennes has the task of scaring a little boy in a graveyard, energizing the film’s fog-cloaked opening scenes as an escaped convict who has a fateful encounter with a young orphan named Pip (Toby Irvine).
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Making a less assaultive but no less vivid impression is Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, the hard-hearted spinster who has turned her estate into a cobwebbed mausoleum and her pretty adopted daughter, Estella (Helena Barlow), into a weapon against the male sex. Looking not so different from the title role she played in “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” Bonham Carter is an inspired choice for a role that typically skews older; her striking beauty, still plainly visible beneath her ghostly pallor, allows the character’s distant personal tragedy to feel freshly inflicted.
Elsewhere, however, the vitality seems to have been largely drained from this rote retelling. Dickens’ wondrous tapestry of incident, character and detail is reduced to a single thread of one-damned-thing-after-another developments, and the impact of memorable supporting characters such as Pip’s harridan-like older sister (Sally Hawkins) and the odious Uncle Pumblechook (David Walliams) feels particularly truncated. The bigscreen has always demanded a level of narrative concision, especially where Dickens is concerned, but this “Great Expectations” feels disciplined to a fault, lacking either the focused, sparkling intelligence of David Lean’s 1946 version or the bold revisionism of Alfonso Cuaron’s 1993 update, to name two more memorable adaptations.
The picture is on surer footing once Pip grows into a strapping young man (played by Toby Irvine’s older brother Jeremy) and finds himself unexpectedly fast-tracked into the upper echelons of London society. Newell and Nicholls pay careful attention to their protagonist’s persistent sense of social inadequacy; the shifting dynamic between the suddenly haughty Pip and his coarse but loving brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng, excellent), represents the film’s most poignant strand. And Pip’s humble origins are not lost on the boorish Bentley Drummle (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), his chief rival for the affections of Estella (Holliday Grainger), now colder and lovelier than ever.
Handsome 21-year-old thesp Irvine, who came to prominence in last year’s “War Horse,” supplies sufficient empathy in the role of Pip, offsetting the character’s fish-out-of-water awkwardness with a fiery impetuousness. Robbie Coltrane (another Potter alum) delivers one of the film’s stronger performances as the formidable Mr. Jaggers, allowing nary a flicker of affection to temper his cold, professional countenance as he oversees Pip’s gentlemanly education.
Although John Mathieson’s widescreen lensing was not seen to its best advantage in digital projection at the Toronto fest screening reviewed, Jim Clay’s production design, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costumes and the impeccably chosen English locations all contribute to an enveloping atmosphere of thick, muddy realism. But the pleasures of this adaptation are ultimately little more than a meager imitation of the riches Dickens achieved on the page. As the story runs its usual course, opening one skeleton closet after another, one senses the filmmakers treating their sacred text as a crutch, rather than something that would actually benefit from being imaginatively interpreted for the screen.