THERE HAVE been fourteen big and small screen adaptations of Great Expectations – only something great or unexpected could justify a fifteenth. Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell’s version is neither. Despite a few good performances, it is a safe, flat and ultimately pointless adaptation.
Great Expectations owes much of its impact to its breadth. It’s not just a story of unrequited love; it’s a story of unrequited love spread across an entire lifetime. Any feature-length adaptation must work hard to capture the novel’s expansiveness. Newell’s 120 minute version fails to do this.
Secrets are inescapable in the world of Great Expectations, and the novel is lit up by a number of bombshell disclosures. Scriptwriter David Nicholls (author of bestselling romantic novel, One Day) brusquely accounts for these in a series of cack-handed flashbacks. The screenplay dashes through the key scenes, ticking all the boxes, but never exceeding any of the classic versions from the past. This is default Dickens – a watered down blend of every adaptation before it.
A few eye-catching performances partially redeem the superficiality and stylistic conservatism. Ms Havisham played by Helena Bonham Carter was always a tantalising prospect, and she doesn’t disappoint. There is a mad-cap humour to her portrayal of the wizened spinster, a welcome antidote to Gillian Anderson’s overdone ghost-Havisham from the recent TV miniseries.
Ralph Fiennes’ grubby Magwitch is also a highlight. His swarthiness and disconcerting deep-set eyes are a perfect match for the convict turned benefactor. However, Fiennes and Bonham Carter are only on screen intermittently. For the majority of the film, the focus is on Jeremy Irvine’s Pip.
It was widely noted that Douglas Booth was too pretty as Pip in last year’s BBC adaptation. The same is true of Irvine. With Pip, the clue is in the name: there must be something pathetic about him, something wan and runty. Irvine is too handsome; his jutting jaw and dusting of stubble fail to evoke Pip’s essential vulnerability.
Mike Newell’s recent career is checkered with schmaltz (Mona Lisa Smile) and ill-judged blockbusters (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). This drably competent adaptation of Great Expectations is an improvement on those outings. It meets all the basic requirements. It’s fine. But with ground this well trodden, fine isn’t good enough.