September 13, 2012

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ TORONTO: “Great Expectations”

At this point in movie history, it’s beside the point to ask why we even need a new film version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS when David Lean’s 1946 masterpiece still exists.  (And for those who want a different slant on the story, there’s Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 modern-day revamp.)  The industry feeds itself on a diet of remakes, sequels and pre-sold titles, and besides, Lean’s film is in black and white!  Horrors.  What is sad, though, is the thoroughly mediocre nature of Mike Newells’ picture, which misses one opportunity after another to thrill us with Dickens’ genius.

The script for the new film is by David Nicholls, responsible last year for the very problematic adaptation of his own novel One Day, and on the basis of these two projects, probably not the go-to guy for literary screenplays.  He doesn’t do anything egregiously bad–there’s no distortion of the basic plotline, although unlike the Lean version, this one doesn’t use Dickens’ own revised ending–but there’s no spark to the storytelling.  Incidents pass by with little dramatic momentum, and the narrative feels scattered, as though it’s been cut down from a longer version.

Much of this, of course, is also a failure of the direction and casting.  Newells seems to have decided to go for a grittier (certainly more violent) version of the story, and to eschew most of the novel’s humor–but losing that means giving up so much of what makes Dickens great.  Comparing rich characters like Joe Gargery, Herbert Pocket, and Wemmick to their incarnations in the Lean film, it’s as though that’s the one in color and this in black & white.  Even Helena Bonham Carter is disappointing as a yonger and more matter-of-fact Miss Havisham, one who seems as likely as not to take off that old wedding dress and take the train to London at any time.

Great Expectations is such a sturdy tale that it can even survive a Pip who’s less interesting than those around him (John Mills, in the 1946 film, was fine but paled in comparison to the rest of the cast), but Newell pushes the point by casting Jeremy Irvine in the lead, a good looking young man who’s no more impressive here than he was being overshadowed by the title character in War Horse.  There’s also a fatal lack of chemistry between Irvine and his Estella, played stolidly by Holliday Grainger.  Without that, the throughline of the saga can’t sustain.  Some of the veteran British character actors do their part.  Ralph Fiennes makes a fine Magwitch, frightening and then moving, and Robbie Coltrane, cast against type as Jaggers the clever but sometimes misleading attorney, is excellent.  Their roles aren’t large enough, though, to keep the entire enterprise in motion.

The movie’s choice of a more realistic tone is reflected in its look as well.  John Mathieson’s photography and Jim Clay’s production design emphasize near-suffocating looks of both richness and squalor.  Newells is consistent in his decisions, but it’s a disappointment to see those used to effect a lessening of one of literature’s classic tales.  This new Great Expectations, unfortunately, defeats any one may have.



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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."