Great Expectations (12A)


Dir: Mike Newell

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With: Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes

Runtime: 128 minutes

HOW many Great Expectations can an expectant enterprising Everyman expect to see in a lifetime? Besides being a new tongue-twister, it's a relevant inquiry on the release of another adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic, this one directed by Mike Newell, helmer of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

There have certainly been more than four adaptations of Great Expectations. It has not been a year since the television version starring Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and Ray Winstone as Magwitch was shown on BBC 1. In 1997, director Alfonso Cuaron and Gwyneth Paltrow had a go. There has even been an animated rendering.

What they all have in common, apart from the source material, is that each comes into the world with the cry, "It will never be as good as David Lean's version" shrieking in its ears. It has been 66 years since Finlay Currie became the stuff of childhood nightmares as Magwitch and John Mills presented a well-scrubbed face to the camera as Pip, the poor boy destined for greater things. Yet Lean's masterpiece continues to be the standard by which all subsequent attempts are judged. Like long hot summers and perfect Christmases gone by, it has become the stuff of legend.

That's no reason, however, to turn away from another adaptation. As last year's television version showed, in the right hands, and with the right cast, the tale can still sing. But timing certainly plays a part. Fourteen years between Cuaron and a BBC 1 version was enough of an absence to make the heart grow fond again. But 11 months?

Newell, then, has some tough acts to follow, and after a narrower gap than any director would like.

He has an advantage from the off in a cast that stretches from Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, the jilted bride frozen in time, to Robbie Coltrane as Mr Jaggers, the lawyer with a thistle for a heart. He has in David Nicholls a screenwriter with enough confidence to pick out certain characters he finds interesting, such as Coltrane's Jagger, and let them have more of the spotlight. And he has the advantage of making a feature film for the big screen.

Despite having all this on his side, Newell's version is likely too much Dickens too soon for audiences. In a couple of weeks, however, as a more festive mood settles and relatives in need of entertaining arrive for Christmas and New Year, a trip to Great Expectations might be far less likely to give you the pip.

Newell opens in traditional fashion on the marshes. This is where any film version of Great Expectations has to come into its own. The big screen shows with merciless clarity one man, Magwitch, battling against the elements as he tries to get further from the prison ship that once held him. Into this wide open, big-skies space wanders Pip, tiny and vulnerable, prey for anyone who might take against him.

Toby Irvine makes a big impression as the young Pip, a small boy using his innate goodness as a shield against the terror Magwitch provokes in him. Another Irvine, his brother Jeremy, takes over when the tale moves on. Pip the elder can be a tough part to play. He has to retain the audience's affections while behaving, at times, in not very attractive ways. In becoming the creature of Miss Havisham and the playmate of Estella he becomes a snob and a stranger to those, like Joe the blacksmith, who have given him all that really matters. Irvine has his moments, but he is more convincing as nice Pip than nasty Pip.

With her bird-nest hair and slightly otherworldly air, Bonham Carter, as you might expect, slips into the role of Miss Havisham like a foot into bridal slippers. Ralph Fiennes, too, wrestles with the part of Magwitch and wins, even if he does occasionally sound like Harold Steptoe.

In both cases, however, one can't help thinking back to the television version and playing a game of who was better. Was Bonham Carter's Havisham more deliciously barking than Gillian Anderson's? Who had the better wedding breakfast, bedecked with cobwebs and riddled with mice? And what about Magwitch? One a scale of one to 10, wouldn't it be more terrifying to come across Ray Winstone on the marshes than Ralph Fiennes?

It's a cruel game to play, but irresistible. Try as they might to be distinctive, the cast of every Dickens adaptation is in a bind, a bind fashioned not by Lean but by the writer himself. The characters are too tightly crafted, too good, to tolerate much meddling.

Where Newell's Great Expectations succeeds is in simply looking great on the cinema screen. From the marshes sequences to Dickensian London, Newell delivers grand spectacles to savour. Television adaptations will always have a place, but a big writer needs a big screen.