There’s always some stories from our childhood which stay with us for life. Perhaps it’s to do with the time that you read them, a particular character who you empathise with, or the profound nature of the author’s story-telling skills and biography (or a combination of these things, and more). Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one which particularly sticks in my mind. Even now, I can recall the terrible shock and horror I felt as a naïve teenage girl, re-reading a certain passage over and over. I was trying to imagine an emotional need to physically be with a lover so intense, that it manifested in the action of digging up their decaying, dead body. How could something be so inspiring and revolting at the same time? When I later visited the famous Parsonage where the Bronte sisters lived all those years ago, I was struck by the thought that perhaps Emily had witnessed this act herself, and had ‘grown’ the story of Heathcliff around it.
So maybe it’s the emotional aspects that evolve from our imagination that make the best stories, and that’s what authors like the Brontes and Dickens did so well. Indeed, perhaps that's why their stories, 150+ years after they were written, still hold so much relevance for many of us today.
There’s been so many interpretations of Great Expectations over the decades, it seems like it’s almost become a staple of the annual cinema and TV Christmas outputs. I’ve seen a few stage productions too and each has its own merits, its own specific reading. The fact that the novel is such a longitudinal, generational web of complexity must make it a nightmare for any potential director to even begin to create. There are so many choices, so may interweaving connections that hold implications for intricate parts of each thread of the story, it’s a wonder that there aren’t even more versions of the story than there already are!
But this latest version, directed by Mike Newell, may have perhaps benefited from someone with a bit more experience with these kinds of complex plots. After all, any of Dickens’ epic novels are more than a galaxy away from the contrived children’s menu delivered by J K Rowling (his previous offering). But there was something special in this adaptation. There was a depth of emotion in the relationship between the two protagonists that perhaps make it profoundly different. Whether this came from the actors themselves, I’m not sure, but certainly Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger performed an unusually profound, unarticulated chemistry. Estella looked more approachable than many of the previous castings, and there was an emphasis (with flashbacks) to her childish beauty, which made Pip’s attractiveness to her perhaps more believable. The atmospheric contrast of the location settings – especially between the disgusting London streets and the spiritual timelessness of the marshes symbolically captured the impact of their social differences.
As usual, Helena Bonham-Carter stole the show for her eccentricity – this time in terms of her totally believable personification of Dickens’ bitter, twisted, rotting resentment in Ms Haversham. The scenes of the manor house, decaying wedding banquet; complete with rat-invested, tiered-cake and the presence of the black-clothed ‘vultures’ (her poor relations) have been repeated many times before. Sadly the only new thing here was in Bonham-Carter's uniqueness.
Ralph Fiennes appeared at first to be an excellent casting as Magwitch, his blue eyes pursuing some sense of sympathy from the audience, alongside the fear. But there was too much missing in his performance for me. And it wasn’t what was said, so much as what was NOT. This, together with the lack of any real humour in the film were to the two aspects which I was disappointed in.
At the beginning of the film, when Magwitch grips Pip by his ear asking where his mother is, and Pip truthfully answers “There, sir!” the convict instinctively starts before realising that the boy has pointed to the grave where his family lay. But along with many of these subtle exchanges between Pip and Magwitch, I felt it was rushed. In the book, the convict runs away for a short distance, before realising what the boy meant. Although thoroughly looking and sounding the part, Fiennes didn’t really deliver this character for me, he was almost amateurish in his unresponsiveness. This was perhaps more acutely obviously having watched him in the adaptation of Schlink's The Reader - one of the best films for portraying a book in which so much was left unsaid.
Just because it’s Dickens’ script, doesn’t mean Newell (or even Fiennes) couldn’t have been braver! He should perhaps listen to Morgan Freeman when he described how the first thing he does when looking at a script is delete most of it. Less is more. In this case especially, a facial expression and a moment of suspension is almost always more effective than following a (very) well-trodden narrative (as Helena Bonham-Carter demonstrates marvellously).
My other point about the lack of humour was perhaps predicable bearing in mind the fact that Newell obviously felt obliged to stick carefully to the intricate details of the long storyline. Biddy and Joe are two adorable characters, who come close in the film to delivering some of the tragic comedy of everyday life. But where were Joe's brilliantly observant jokes? and ‘matronly’ Biddy’s children?
The only other time the audience laughed was when Herbert Pocket (brilliantly played by Ollie Alexander) put his fists up for the second time to Pip to imitate his childish fighting. The Pumblechook, the nodding Aged and many other deliberately light-heartedly named characters were missing that certain something, or were missed altogether, in order for us to be whizzed-through the story to get it all in within the time-frame (which nonetheless was quite long). Overall, it was a wonderful effort and included some inspired casting and scenery. The emotional aspects of the social prejudices and the inequalities were dealt with sensitively and as I said, there were subtle nuances between Pip and Estella that I loved. But overall a little disappointing.
Perhaps Great Expectations is in some ways a product of its own success? Has this Dickens been ‘done to death’? Do I myself have unrealistic Great Expectations in expecting the Director to have some imagination in his interpretation? Are the characters just too numerous and the storyline just too complex for all the (in my view) essential elements to come together on the Big Screen? Well, I’ll wait to hear your views….