As the closing-night film of the London Film Festival, I believed Mike Newell’s Great Expectations was clearly re-imagining a classic story for modern audiences. Rather than following in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuaron, whereby his 1998 Great Expectations was set in modern-day New York starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro, this interpretation harks back further to David Lean’s original rather than any contemporary piece. Written by David Nicholl’s (Writer and Director of One Day), this film clearly attempts to gain the interest of a younger audience, despite its period-setting. The trailer tells us “from the Director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and ensures Helena Bonham Carter recalls her Tim-Burton-esque roles as the unsettling Miss Havisham. Lead-role ‘Pip’ is played by Jeremy Irvine, coming off his War Horse, and his rugged “old-fashioned-but-not-really” look seems to clearly target the Robert Pattinson fans. I fear that this Great Expectations will surely guarantee many school-trips and repeatable-viewings in English lessons – and may even con a few teenagers into paying for a ticket on a Friday night.
The story presents us with Pip, a young-boy (Toby Irvine) who, upon visiting the grave of his Mother, is approached by an escaped-convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes). Pip manages to smuggle food to Magwitch, alongside stealing an axe to remove the chains. Soon after, Pip is sent for to ‘play’ in the house of Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) – a wide-eyed recluse – who has an adopted daughter in Estella (Helena Barlow). The class-divide is clear as Pip is the son of a blacksmith (Jason Flemyng) whilst Estella, living in the mansion with Miss Havisham, clearly has a high-opinion of herself – apparently raised to break the hearts of men. Through an unfortunate event, Pip stops visiting the mansion and continues to support his family as a blacksmith – until a lawyer, Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), reveals that an anonymous bidder has ‘Great Expectations’ for Pip (now played by Jeremy Irvine) and will pay for him to live in London to become a ‘Gentleman’…
The story is renowned for its depiction of the social-divide and the attitudes people have to wealth and success. The definition of success in the family of Pip – happiness, marriage and love – opposed to the isolation and loneliness of Miss Havisham are all facets which, from the first act, you clearly appreciate. The type of criminal Magwitch is – opposed to the sins of other characters, are revealed through the story and again highlight an injustice between those of affluence, and those without. The setting between the country and landscape of Kent, opposed to the dirty hustle and bustle of London, again, portray the two differing attitudes to life – and the huge divide and difference between living an urban lifestyle rather than living in the rural outsider counties. These are timeless details which relate directly to the original literature by Charles Dickens.
Considering how important location is in Great Expectations, it is a god-send that the highlight of the film is in the depiction of Kent. The wide-shots portraying the vast landscapes manage to capture something mythic about the area – such beauty in the land is something that is core to the film. How would an alternate-version of the story look? Whereby the city-life was praised opposed to the muddy and dull country? At any rate, the stunning locale is highlighted by sunlight reflecting on the water whilst horses and carriages gently roll across the Isle of Sheppey.
But ironically, outside of Kent, the setting seems to feel quite small-in-scale. For a different website, I wrote an analysis of David Lean’s Great Expectations, discussing how it managed to capture the fascination with old-traditions represented by the decaying-house – in 1946, Lean’s version followed Xanadu in Citizen Kane and Manderlay in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In the current climate, it seems that this new-version follows on from The Woman in Black, and the gothic house which ‘the woman’ resided within. The Georgian context, though the accurate time period, is also difficult to truly grasp with regards to London itself. The streets of London often feel false whilst many rooms and locations are imitations of the sets within Lean’s film – for example the stuffy and disorganised offices of Jaggers. The sheer scale of the film is only effective when we are within the countryside – whereas within London, it feels smaller and tight.
Last year, when The Woman in Black was released, students in schools were all whisked away to the cinema at different points. Many were directed to attend a screening over the half-term as Susan Black’s short-book was used as a text in the English GCSE. Everything about Mike Newell’s Great Expectations seems to reek of the same thing. Harry-Potter cast members in Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane – alongside the direction of Mike Newell target the teenagers of today. The Robert-Pattinson look of Jeremy Irvine with a love-triangle between Pip, Estella (Holliday Grainger channelling the femininity of Christina Hendricks in Mad Men) and “Bentley Drummle” (Ben Lloyd Hughes) seems to echo the Twilight series. Even Holliday Grainger has starred alongside Robert Pattinson in Bel-Ami and The Bad Mother’s Handbook – is she the ‘go-to’ girl for R-Patz’s love-interest?
It is 200 years since the birth of ‘Charles Dickens’, creating buzz and purpose to produce a version of the story before the year is out. Indeed, the BBC had a version recently starring Gillian Anderson, David Suchet and Ray Winstone. The production has ticked all the relevant boxes to ensure that the film garners success – free advertising through the Dickens relevance; a film which Grandparents and Parents alike will want to take their families – as teachers and schools will flock to maximise the use of a current trend in classic literature… and, who knows, some Twilight and Harry Potter fans may see the poster and go in on the actors credentials alone! But as a film, Jeremy Irvine is weak and wooden as Pip; Helena Bonham Carter – though effective – feels like she is simply phoning-in a character she has played before whilst Ralph Fiennes is criminally under-used. Everyone else, director included, seems to look to David Lean for some type of credible reference point. So why not simply watch the original? I doubt this will go in the history books – but I’m sure it will be in English exercise books for the next five years. At least until The Great Gatsby comes out…