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Review: Rich 'Great Expectations' nevertheless under-delivers

Mike Newell's film version of Dickens' 'Great Expectations' is skillfully made and adeptly performed, but that's not quite enough.

November 09, 2013|By Annlee Ellingson
  • Ralph Fiennes stars in "Great Expectations."
Ralph Fiennes stars in "Great Expectations." (Johan Persson, Main Street…)

Mike Newell, whose eclectic career has ranged from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" to "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," has given us a classic adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved bildungsroman "Great Expectations." It is skillfully made and adeptly performed; even so it doesn't really add anything to the canon.

That canon includes roughly 15 film versions of the tale that follows an apprentice blacksmith as he navigates the transition from poor village orphan to sponsored London gentleman.

Everyone knows the story: While being raised by his wicked sister (Sally Hawkins) and kindly brother-in-law Joe (Jason Flemyng), young Pip is conscripted by the eccentric heiress Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) to entertain her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham herself is ghostly, an apparition, with chalky skin and wild gray hair, dressed in the rags of her wedding gown.

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Through the eyes of production designer Jim Clay, her estate is a time warp where all the clocks stopped at 20 minutes to 9, dust motes curling in the weak sunbeams that leak in to weakly illuminate layers of decay. In this space, and in the story, nothing can be seen clearly, obscured by shadows, veils and mottled mirrors.

Pip falls in love with the coldly beautiful Estella, of course, and is granted the chance to woo her when, years later, he's whisked off to London by a mysterious wealthy benefactor to become a gentleman. Pip (Jeremy Irvine) swiftly divests himself of his modest upbringing but is appalled to learn who's been footing his bills and that he wasn't necessarily meant for Estella (Holliday Grainger) after all.

Fresh-faced Irvine, recently seen in Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," and Grainger, with frequent appearances on British television, bring little baggage to distract from their fine performances. But they're also surrounded by stellar talent in the tale's iconic supporting parts, including Bonham Carter as the ravaged Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as an escaped convict whom Pip aids early on and Robbie Coltrane as the lawyer who serves as Pip's guardian when he comes into money.

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Screenwriter David Nicholls crams hundreds of pages of child abuse and unrequited love, betrayal and revenge, identity and class into just over two hours by making judicious trims to Dickens' prodigious plot. But the film still feels rushed toward the end as the characters' intertwined backstories are revealed through exposition and distorted flashbacks.

A perfectly fine adaptation of a timeless novel, "Great Expectations" doesn't quite meet the promise of its title.


'Great Expectations'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images

Running time: 2 hour, 9 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle Monica 4, Santa Monica; Regal Promenade Stadium 13, Rolling Hills Estates; Muvico Thousand Oaks 14 and MuviXL, Thousand Oaks; Paseo Camarillo Cinemas, Camarillo


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