The best film version of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, I think almost everyone would agree, is David Lean’s 1946 film. It conveys the moody, Gothic air of this late work, especially with the early scenes in the fog and later at Miss Havisham’s old mansion, beautifully captured in Guy Green’s black and white photography. The casting is almost perfect as well, with Jean Simmons unforgettable as the younger Estella. This is arguably the best version of any Dickens book on film, but that writer has enough room in the universe of his imagination for many versions, and now we have a new one from director Mike Newell. It doesn’t surpass Lean’s film, and doesn’t try to, but it has its own rewards, especially for those familiar with this marvelous story.
The plot of Great Expectations centers around an orphan named Pip, living with his sister and her husband, a blacksmith, near the wild country marshes of Kent, in England. In the famous opening scene, while visiting his mother’s grave, Pip is accosted by a convict, escaped from a nearby prison ship, who frightens the boy into getting him food and a file to break his chains. The boy does so the next morning, but the convict is later captured by soldiers. As the story moves on, Pip is hired on as a kind of plaything by the rich, half-mad recluse Miss Havisham, where the boy meets her beautiful and heartless ward Estella. Later he is endowed with wealth by a mysterious benefactor, and he goes to London to become a gentleman, a process that goes to his head and causes him, regretfully, to become ashamed of his origins, and particularly of his good hearted brother-in-law Joe, the blacksmith.
Here, as in all his late fiction, Dickens turned his critical eye on the issue of class in English life. The pretensions of wealth threaten to corrupt Pip and estrange him from the things that really matter, and from his essential goodness. The film makes this theme explicit, and also takes more time to clarify the typically complex plot than Lean had leisure to do. In place of the haunting black and white, Newell’s film has a fine, although subdued, color palette, and the London scenes well convey the chaos and filth of the 19th century metropolis.
Jeremy Irvine is serviceable in the role of Pip, essentially a point-of-view character who mirrors the fantastic variety of Dickens’ world. The stand-outs are Robbie Coltrane, imposing as the arrogant lawyer Jaggers, Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, the convict; and Helena Bonham Carter in the crucial part of Miss Havisham, living in the dark in her perpetually faded wedding dress.
You can probably tell that I adore the fiction of Charles Dickens, and have seen more film versions of that author than I can count. Too often, they settle for a kind of pallid approximation, a superficial romantic version of the Dickens spirit, but Mike Newell, and the screenwriter David Nicholls, have a firm grasp on what the novel was trying to say, and the film can take its place among the more successful versions of Great Expectations.