Tuesday night I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of Mike Newell’s new adaptation of Great Expectations at the Toronto International Film Festival. Attended by numerous filmgoers, the press, and many of the cast and crew, the film was introduced reverently by the director, who spoke of his abiding love for Dickens as well as the importance of a bigscreen adaptation of this masterpiece during the Dickens bicentenary.
It breaks my heart, then, to write a lukewarm review of this adaptation, because it tried so hard to eschew modern trappings and stay true to the book. In fact it tried SO hard, so genuinely hard, that it seems almost ironic that it failed to capture the essence of the novel—even as it lined up, perfunctorily, all of the necessary elements.
I could almost imagine screenwriter David Nicholls trimming 600 pages of novel into two hours, gleefully beaming that he managed to include so many references from the source material often not included in adaptations of the book (the presence of Biddy; Herbert calling Pip "Handel” and even humming “The Harmonious Blacksmith”; and conversations between Pip and Joe, and Pip and Magwitch, taken verbatim from the book). And perhaps proud of himself that he managed to make some questionable but understandable decisions regarding Mrs. Joe and Orlick. I wanted to like this film because I imagined the great pains the writer and director took with it as they brought the first feature adaptation since the 1998 Alfonso Cuaron contemporary version to life.
There has not been a bigscreen traditional adaptation of the novel since the 1946 David Lean version. At the screening, Jeremy Irvine (who plays Pip) and Holliday Grainger (Estella) both spoke to the fact that each adaptation represents the time period not only in which it is set, but in which it is filmed. Ralph Fiennes also proved he had a solid grasp of Magwitch and the class differences prevalent in the Dickensian sphere.
And yet the film itself seems solely focused on reimagining perfectly costumed characters in an elaborate Dickensian puppet play. Despite the tension and darkness the actors spoke of pre-screening and despite the very obvious use of darkness and light, the characters themselves never reached more than archetypes. Dickensian figures can't help but become archetypal in their construct, but I needed something more than the immediate realization on screen with nothing deeper beneath the well-costumed, line-reciting surface.
When I started writing “Great Adaptations” on my blog and revisiting so many of the famous television and film incarnations of the tale, I realized that I had a few “musts” for any adaptation. I knew that Joe Gargery was an essential character and it is through him that we understand how far Pip strays and how much it takes for redemption to take hold. Moreover, I needed ambiguity in the ending and for the resolution of Pip and Estella’s relationship to transcend typical romance and be seen as the problematic and multi-layered exploration of loss, love, expectation and despair that it is. This film erred on all counts.
Joe cannot be a beacon of light if Pip does not show his true snobbish colours in London. What we have here is a slightly miffed Pip confronting a slightly out-of-place Joe with no real dissonance between them. We never see Pip’s ingratitude because he is only slightly perturbed by his past. While the film does well with a slow, sweeping moment when Pip, as a boy, first notices in Joe what Estella had berated him about—his thick boots, coarse hands, and bearing as a blacksmith—it fails to show the growing divide between Pip and Joe, so that the ultimate moment of forgiveness and grace at the end falls flat.
I understand that there are time restrictions for films, but I remembered that the BBC 2011 version (my favourite adaptation to date) ran a little more than three hours and was able to accomplish so much more. Certainly, there are moments in this film to enjoy: the Christmas dinner and its mayhem; the scenes on the marshes; a low-hanging cage on a leafless tree acting as a constant reminder of the hulks literally swinging the audience back from the opulence of London later in the story.
While Robbie Coltrane’s Jaggers certainly strikes a different note and Ewen Bremner’s Wemmick lights up the screen with his flitting talk of portable property, Woolworth, and his aged parent, I found Magwitch to be the one real light in this tunnel of the well-meaning but oh-so-conventional. While Helena Bonham Carter’s much anticipated role as Miss Havisham played very much to book with little uniqueness or scope, Ralph Fiennes’s Magwitch was a lesson in magnificent obsession. Pip has become not only his fixed point,but the creation of a convict Pygmalion. He tells Pip that he loves him more than a son and, in Fiennes’ eyes and the deepening lines on his face, we see this love, this obsession. There is a passage in Les Miserables when Hugo explains Jean Valjean’s love for his newly adopted daughter Cosette. Hugo explains that to a man without family or hope, Cosette became all types of relationship and companionship in one: sister, daughter, lover (not in a crass way, mind). The same can be seen in Fiennes’s portrayal of the broken Magwitch, a desperate man propelled onward by the slightest sliver of light: a young man who once showed a revelatory act of kindness.
While I found the adaptation too fast-paced and flawed on many counts, I do commend its spirit, its honesty, the genuine love for the novel behind its inception, and the deep understanding the cast displayed for the timelessness of the novel. I recommend a viewing for fans of the novel; but for those unfamiliar with the tale in any medium, I personally feel that the 2011 BBC adaptation and the 1946 David Lean adaptation remain the strongest I have seen.
Photo copyright Rachel McMillan. Left to right: Mike Newell, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Toby Irvine.
Rachel McMillan blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.