Movie review – Great Expectations: Expect a great Dickens adaptation

2013-08-13 14:00

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If ever there was a book that explores the arbitrary nature of class, it is Great Expectations.

It’s also a mystery story and a love story. Best of all though, it is author Charles Dickens, so it’s full of, well, Dickensian characters.

Director Mike Newell gets the characterisations right. He gets the feel of the times spot on too, so that in every way this feels like an adaptation of the book that Dickens would have loved.

Also, one of the big draws of this film is that increasingly weird Helena Bonham Carter is Miss Havisham, a role that she seems increasingly perfect for.

Carter doesn’t disappoint as the eternally decaying bride whose revenge on the world is a heartless girl to break male hearts.

There is a social subtext here about the stunted power of the female, one that is sadly not extinct in our own time – 150 years since Dickens wrote it.

Pip, the hapless boy, who becomes embroiled in a social duel he barely understands is played by Jeremy Irvine, who did such a good job in War Horse.

He gets Pip’s innocence and thoughtless cruelty just right.

Ralph Fiennes is suitably scary as the violent Magwitch, who becomes Pip’s secret benefactor, and Holliday Grainger is the haughty Estella.

Grainger has probably drawn on her role in TV’s The Borgias for this role as the unattainable but highly desirable Estella.

Estella is the stereotypical “woman as trophy”, alas, Miss Havisham’s attempts to turn this propensity of men to take trophies into a weapon backfires on poor Estella – and Pip.

Like all the boys in Dickens’ stories, Pip starts out as an abused boy.

His sister (played with vivid viciousness by Sally Hawkins) beats him while her steady, good-hearted husband Joe (Jason Flemyng) tries to protect Pip and be his best friend. When Pip is frightened into helping Magwitch evade the authorities, he sets in motion his own path to riches and doom.

This is the essence of Pip’s story. In a society so obsessed with class and belonging, how can a boy elevated from apprentice blacksmith to gentleman do it without becoming alienated from both worlds?

The answer is he can’t.

The strength of Dickens and the reason Great Expectations remains relevant a century and a half since he wrote it, is that the themes it explores are timeless. Social mobility might not be as tough as it was during Dickens’ time, but it is still fraught with difficulties for the unwary.

Dickens also shows up the futility of revenge and that being a person of means is a far cry from being a person of good character.

Exquisitely attentive to detail, this version of Great Expectations will delight purists and lure another generation into Dickens’ web of tales that probe the issues that frustrate social justice.

Film: Great Expectations (Ster-Kinekor)

Director: Mike Newell

Featuring: Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Jeremy Irvine, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Sally Hawkins


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