Our great expectations for classic adaptations include a hunger for something new, as well as something old.
A pity then, that Mike Newell’s solid, luscious and super-cautious take on Dickens has none of the verve or risk taking of Andrea Arnold’s raw, sweary Wuthering Heights or even Alfonso Cuaron’s stylised but stylish 1998 updating of this class-climbing classic.
Granted, there’s beauty by the bucket-load in its wide, desolate Kentish landscapes, the camera swooping above the marshes to underline the big-screen credentials of this version.
The falsely glittering Victorian high-life into which penniless orphan Pip (War Horse’s wide-eyed Jeremy Irvine) is propelled after being favoured by the eccentric Miss Havisham is also visually stunning.
There’s no shortage of atmosphere or excellent playing either; when Ralph Fiennes’ snarling convict Magwitch looms from a tombstone it’s as terrifying as anything in David Lean’s 1946 classic version.
But big vistas and big names can’t compensate for the film’s necessity to cram Dickens’ rich, sprawling set of characters and twisty subplots into a two-hour film. We’ll give a shiny half-crown to the plucky urchin who can work out Magwitch’s backstory from the rushed, dream-like flashbacks that deliver it to us.
Key characters like Robbie Coltrane’s inappropriately genial lawyer Jaggers are stuffed into scene slivers. And why play the early comic scenes so broadly that Pip’s relatives, David Walliams’ showy Mr Pumblechook and Sally Hawkins’ shrieking Mrs Joe, seem transplanted from a TV spoof? As does Helena Bonham-Carter’s playfully eccentric Miss Havisham, looking more like The Bride Of Frankenstein than literature’s most famous jilted lady.
Thankfully scriptwriter David Nicholls (One Day) ramps up the psychological acuity for the central romance, delicately painting Pip and his dream girl as victims fatally warped by their childhood manipulation by adults. Holliday Grainger’s spiky portrayal of Estella as a knowingly damaged heartbreaker, and Jeremy Irvine’s sensitive, fate-chastened Pip, lift the film out of its classy but cosy mode into something finer.
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Its glossy looks, first-rate playing and famous pedigree will be cat-nip to book-groupies. But can this dutiful adaptation set the box office burning like Miss Havisham’s skirts?