Great Expectations (Newell, 2013)

Or, if you like, Harry Potter and the Great Expectations. OK, no Daniel Radcliffe, but Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane are in this Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) interpretation of the Dickens classic.

Which is not, it cannot be emphasized enough, apparently, the classic 1946 David Lean version of the same story. Nor is it the “South Park” version, but nobody seems to be holding that against it.

I don’t have much truck with Dickens. I tried reading The Pickwick Papers once; it was so dense with what were, essentially, the pop culture references of the day (specifically politics, which is just self-important pop culture) that, well, it just didn’t seem worth the effort.

Well, it was his first work, and he was paid by the word, and probably mostly concerned with keeping the gravy train going. Probably a bad choice to start. My fault, really.

In any event, I mention it because there are Dickens purists out there, and between the Lean purists and the Dickens purists, this movie doesn’t have much of a chance.

The Boy and I really liked it, however. The story is more or less the one you know and love, or not. They pretty much show it all in the trailer, which is kind of a shame because the third act twist is a good one. If there’s a serious flaw with this film it might be that it’s too aware of what has come before.

It clocks in at about two hours and moves briskly the whole time, which means scenery must be chewed at a breakneck pace. That’s not a dig, there are a whole lot of acting chops crammed into this timeframe and, in typically English fashion, alongside the big names are many lesser known actors carrying their weight.

Jeremy Irvine (whose only other major credit is the lead in War Horse) plays Pip likably, but Holliday Grainger (who, at 25, is a grizzled old acting veteran) perhaps had the tougher job playing Estella likably, as in many interpretations, she’s rather detestable.

This is a relatively optimistic interpretation—something I think that bothered some of the purists, although it’s debatable whether the Dickens meant it to be as bleak as it is often portrayed—and so Estella must suffer the scars of her twisted association with Havisham, but also reveal, however subtly, something redeemable, and something worthy of being redeemed. Grainger has a kind of porcelain beauty to her that has some warmth, and Newell, too, is fairly skilled at making her unattractive at times and not at others.

Helena Bonham-Carter threads that needle very nicely, too. At times she looks almost ghostly beautiful, like a shadow of her young self, and at other times like a hag, but even if when she looks “good”, she looks like the live-action version of herself in The Corpse Bride.

If we’re being honest, though, all the roles have challenges. Dickens isn’t really about safe, subdued strokes, I don’t think, and the characters are broad—perhaps too broad for modern audiences.

I don’t know; I’m just trying to figure out why a lot of people seem put off or outright hostile.

It’s a good story with memorable characters. It rewards your time in the chair, and isn’t self-indulgent. So, I guess I’d recommend if you’re open to Dickens but not fanatical about him.

The Flower demurred, by the way, because she figured she had already seen it.

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