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Great Expectations (2012)

Johan Persson/56th BFI London Film Festival

Charles Dickens’s novel has been required reading for years, with varying levels of success. Modern 14-year-olds often struggle with the flowery Victorian language and find it difficult to see the very current emotions underneath. Many children will seize upon this movie gratefully. In that sense this new adaptation is a tremendous success. In very many other ways, this is a story that has been told before.

Young orphan Pip (Toby Irvine) lives with his hateful sister (Sally Hawkins) and her kind husband Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng) in a smithy on the Kent coast. One evening Pip is accosted by an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes) and coerced into stealing food for him before he is recaptured. Shortly after, he is brought to the home of local recluse Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) as a companion for her adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow).

When Pip (now Jeremy Irvine) grows up, he suddenly inherits a fortune, to be managed in London by lawyer Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) and his assistant Wemmick (Ewen Bremner). Now a gentleman — a man who does not need to work for a living — he attempts to woo Estella (now Holliday Grainger), who has grown up to be one of the most eligible prizes in England. And all the strands of the story begin to weave together.

Mike Newell is a solid director of considerable talent, who knows how to handle pacing, sets and the subtleties of mood with an expert hand. The movie never drags and skips through time with wonderful economy of characterization and dialogue. Cinematographer John Mathieson has worked on several action movies and knows how to create crisp images that reflect the passing time. But can a movie be too professional and polished? Somehow all this expertise is really . . . boring. This seems to be due to the casting by Susie Figgis. With two exceptions, all of the main actors have played these parts before. Mr. Fiennes putting a young orphan in fear of his life? Mr. Coltrane advising the same young orphan on how to best use his new powers? Ms. Hawkins beating up a helpless child in her care? Ms. Bonham Carter mad as a box of frogs? The Harry Potter movies, “Jane Eyre” and all of them. Even Ms. Irvine and Ms. Grainger, who are relatively new to movies, have already played similar parts in “War Horse” and “Bel Ami,” respectively.

But then there is Mr. Flemyng’s performance as Joe Gargery, who is first seen stuffing tea towels down Pip’s trousers to lessen the pain of a beating at the hands of his own wife. Throughout the movie he is Pip’s most solid friend, happy for Pip’s good fortune and resigned to the changes this will bring between them. Nothing in Mr. Flemyng’s career of supporting roles in Hollywood action films has prepared us for this. The scene in the London chophouse, where Joe whistles for the waiter and Pip is mortified by his lack of manners, is the most exciting and dynamic scene in the whole movie, perhaps because we never feel like we know already what Mr. Flemyng is going to do.

The other surprise is Charlie Callaghan as young Herbert Pocket, who grows up to be Pip’s other true friend in London. Mr. Callaghan, aged about 10, manages in his one scene to be both so ridiculous and decent that he walks off with the entire movie. Olly Alexander as adult Herbert stands on the back of this performance with a charming and respectable one of his own. “Great Expectations” has been adapted for screen and television many times, most recently 18 months ago on the BBC. It’s refreshing that the story so often retold still has the power to surprise.


Opens on Nov. 30 in Britain and on Nov. 8, 2013 in the United States.

Directed by Mike Newell; written by David Nicholls, based on the novel by Charles Dickens; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by Tariq Anwar; music by Richard Hartley; production design by Jim Clay; costumes by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; produced by Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, Emanuel Michael and David Faigenblum; released by Lionsgate (Britain) and Main Street Films (United States). Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Toby Irvine (Young Pip), Jeremy Irvine (Pip), Olly Alexander (Herbert Pocket), Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch), Jason Flemyng (Joe Gargery), Robbie Coltrane (Jaggers), Helena Bonham Carter (Miss Havisham), Holliday Grainger (Estella), David Walliams (Mr. Pumblechook), Tamzin Outhwaite (Molly), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Joe), Ewen Bremner (Wemmick) and Jessie Cave (Biddy).


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