From the director of Four Weddings And A Funeral comes this fresh, absorbing film adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved novel starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes. After Pip, an orphaned blacksmith's apprentice (Jeremy Irvine) inherits a fortune from an anonymous benefactor, his future seems promising. But a bitter heiress (Bonham Carter) is intent on preventing Pip from finding true love in this lush, satisfying drama that also stars Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane and Holliday Grainger.
What an amazing thing to create art and have it last long after you have left this mortal plane. Can you imagine? To carve words and ideas onto a page where they echo across generations despite past and present having little cultural overlap... other than universal human experiences. We're talking about William Shakespeare, whose plays are always in production. Or Dante, whose nightmares continue to inspire and terrify. Or the estimable Charles Dickens, whose gifts for plot and character (and lack of modern copyright) make his novels and stories ripe for continual adaptation.
Great Expectations first unfurled across the pages of literary magazine All the Year Round over the course of nine months, concluding in August of 1861. It has been adapted for the screen seven times (thanks, Wikipedia), with filmmakers such as David Lean and Alfonso Cuarón placing their personal stamps on the piece (along, of course, with their writers, producers, actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and the hundreds of folks necessary to make movies).
Submitted for our review today, we have the 2012 BBC Films production directed by Mike Newell ('Four Weddings and a Funeral, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire') and adapted by novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls.
The story is classic Dickens. We meet a young English orphan named Pip (Toby Irvine), who lives with his abusive older sister and his genial blacksmith Uncle Joe (Jason Flemyng). One Christmas Eve, a terrifying escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), stumbles out of the marshes as young Pip visits his mother's gravestone. Pip helps the starving criminal, stealing brandy and vittles, though the man is eventually captured and dragged away.
A short time later, wealthy, local spinster, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), summons Pip to be a paid playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella (Helena Barlow). Havisham is a strange woman who sits endlessly in her rotting wedding dress, having closed off her dilapidated estate to sunlight many years ago after being left at the altar. As a sort of pay-it-backward revenge scheme, Havisham is grooming Estella to be a heart breaker. After Pip falls in love with Estella (as Havisham hoped), he is sent away.
Skip ahead a few years, Pip (Jeremy Irvine) is Joe's apprentice until a prestigious lawyer named Mr. Jaggers (Robby Coltrane) arrives with tremendous news. Thanks to a mysterious benefactor who wishes not to be named, Pip is to become a London gentleman. Pip can't wait to change his fortunes, so he buys some new duds and heads to say goodbye to Miss Havisham (well, he actually went to see Estella, but she's away at school), because he suspects Miss Havisham is the mysterious benefactor.
Pip lives in London with Herbert Pocket, a distant cousin who was also one of Estella's potential playmates from back in the day. They make a go of turning Pip from blacksmith to gentleman by spending way too much money and joining a gentlemen's club for young Victorian gentlemen who like to smash drinking glasses and all look like they're in Flock of Seagulls. While there, Pip makes gentlemen-enemies with the richiest richie of them all, Bently Drummle.
Next thing we know, Estella returns from her studies and Miss Havisham wants Pip to see what he definitely can't have. This impossibly beautiful grown up Estella (Holliday Grainger) is going to London to woo herself a rich man (and, of course, break his heart). The story then oscillates between Pip's suffering while Estella dances with his gentlemen enemies (curse you, Bently Drummle!), and striking revelations about how all the characters' lives were ruined by a series of interconnected events.
What a fascinating exercise. From an intellectual standpoint, everything is here. The film is absolutely gorgeous, from the fog-drenched marshes to Havisham's dilapidated mansion to the muddy streets of London. The actors are all fine in their roles. Though some critics feel Helena Bonham Carter isn't exactly in the same movie, citing her roles in partner Tim Burton's films, I would personally argue she and some of the actors could have gone a little larger with their performances. The sets themselves are so rich and detailed and evocative, sometimes the actors were too grounded, and perhaps a little more overt scene-chewing is in order. Also, while the cinematography as a whole was lavish and is well-rendered for this Blu-ray, sometimes scene staging felt a little flat – basically, characters and cameras rarely moved indoors.
As an adaptation, 'Great Expectation' is quite faithful. All the big plot points and famous moments are here. And, as the film progressed, I actually started to enjoy it more and more. Charles Dickens constructed a ripping page turner with twists and reveals and connections that make the whole thing add up to more than the sum of its parts. By its conclusion, Great Expectations is a tragic tale of cause and effect, of how a few bad decisions ruined the lives of pretty much everyone in the story....
So it's good, it's faithful, the costumes and photography and settings are lush and lavish. The analytical portion of my brain is satisfied and impressed. There's a lot of excellent work on display.
It's just thin…
A bit like the latter Harry Potter films, and to some degree 'The Hunger Games' series, this production feels more like a Cliff's Notes. In the past, studio films notoriously destroyed novels to make their films, but I would argue we're turning a corner where many (certainly not all) adaptations are too faithful. All the sign posts are there. Themes. Twists. Characters. But what's missing, for me at least, is the emotional connections. The emotional cause and effects. 'Great Expectations', in particular, has so many time jumps, characters seem to change off screen rather than in key moments. I guess I'm wondering if we're in an age where the movies can't ever be better than their source material (or at least stand on thier own) because we're too worried to make big choices.
Basically, while this 'Great Expectations' (and other book-based franchises) is textually correct, I would hope for more subtext. I want to see Pip endlessly suffering for Estella and how he reacts to this constant rejection. I want to see their connection eb and flow. But that would take more time and more scenes, somethign a single movie may not have time for.
Therein lies the ultimate challenge. How does one break down 544 pages into a two hour motion picture? It's damn hard. The truth is movies are much more akin to short stories than novels, which we could then argue are much more akin to a season of television where there is time to invest.
This 'Great Expectations' is quite good -- and as I said above, there's much to admire from a craft standpoint -- but I had trouble connecting with Pip's story, partially due to the time jumps described above, but also because Pip doesn't really do anything in the movie. He's simply a guy where things keep happening all around him. I don’t think it's a coincidence that the film's last thirty or so minutes are much more engaging – it's during this time when Pip takes command and actually confronts Estella and tries to help his mysterious benefactor. Further, I never felt the intensity of Pip's Estella-obsession. I hate to rank adaptations, and while it certainly has its own unique flaws, there's such a sense of devotion in Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation that was capped by that miraculous Kissing in the Rain sequence.
In the end, I appreciate many things about this latest 'Great Expectations', but for me I was unable to connect on an emotional level.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Great Expectations' (2012) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment as part of a Blu-ray + Digital HD edition. Inside the case (no slipcover here), you will find one 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc and instructions about how to redeem your UltraViolet copy. Trailers include 'Romeo & Juliet', 'Cowgirls n' Angels: Dakota's Summer', and 'Still Mine'.
'Great Expectations' offers a handsome visual experience. This AVC MPEG-4 encode is framed at the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
From its opening shots in the fog-swept English marshes, viewers can, ahem, expect great things. The world itself is rich, and though the color palette is often (though not always) intentionally muted, there are wonders to behold. For instance, Estella's various purple dresses pop off the screen, and the scenes with Pip's gentlemen's club are awash with bold costumes and interesting hair effects (seriously, the Flock of Seagulls thing is a bit weird at first, but I eventually dug the choice). Contrast and black levels are near perfect inside Miss Havisham's rotting mansion where light spills about in wondrous ways. Despite the generally drab colors, flesh tones are accurate. The encoding itself is strong, never bowing under busy shots of London's meat markets, flocks of flying birds, or garish ballrooms of dancing people. Even the CGI street extensions look pretty darn good.
Overall, despite my inability to connect with the film emotionally, this Blu-ray captures the film's expertly photographed, lavish production.
Though a hair less exciting than its video presentation, 'Great Expectations' offers up a strong and accurate English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
While some audience members may have a spot o' trouble understanding various English accents, dialog is the star of this lossless mix. Not only did the filmmakers keep levels clear and crisp, they aren't afraid to use the full three-channel front sound stage to place conversational voices. Panning effects were also accurate, with the streets of inner London becoming lively, though never fully immersive. LFE levels are pretty much nonexistent, as we might expect, save for a climactic river sequence and Pip's ride on a horse. Finally, music composed by Richard Hartley filled out the entire soundstage nicely.
As with many films that don't make a splash at the domestic box office, this Blu-ray release has only two special features:
'Great Expectations' was conceived by Charles Dickens over 150 years ago, the classic story of an orphan boy who pines after an unattainable girl and gets a chance to see how life is like in the upper class. Spoiler alert, but money can't buy love and happiness, and if heinous enough, bad deeds have the ability to poison lives for years to come.
This 2012 adaptation, directed by Mike Newell, is handsome and well acted, but I personally found it hard to connect with the characters as this (perhaps over) faithful adaptation raced from famous plot-point to plot-point without enough breathing room. As a Blu-ray, the film is gorgeous in 1080p HD and sounds pretty good too. There are no special features of any value. In hopes Dickens fans (or neophytes) will find more to enjoy in this adaptation than I did, file this one under Worth a Look.