It's Dickens again... this time with a hint of Harry Potter
What, again? The gaps between film and TV adaptations of classic literature seem to be narrowing. Less than a year ago, Dickens' 13th novel was back on telly as a three-part BBC Christmas prestige drama.
The real challenge for film-makers tackling such works is to do something different with the source material without betraying it altogether. That can be a tricky business. Cary Fukanaga's rejigging of Jane Eyre was a triumph. Joe Wright's bold version of Anna Karenina had its detractors, but also plenty of admirers. Andrea Arnold's earthy Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, failed to find an audience altogether, taking just £150,000 at the UK box office.
Perhaps mindful of this, and the fact that Alfonso Cuaron's 1998 version of Great Expectations, which relocated the story to modern-day New York, was not a great success, fellow former Harry Potter director Mike Newell has opted for a straightforward heritage drama adaptation. But there's a problem here, too. Comparisons with David Lean's definitive 1946 version, which invariably pops up on those Greatest British Films of All Time lists, are now inevitable.
Coming off the back of a pair of flops (Love in the Time of Cholera and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), Newell plays it safe throughout.
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The script, by Bristol University graduate and Starter for Ten and One Day author David Nicholls, occasionally struggles to cram everything in to a two-hour running length, which means the story sometimes feels rushed and characters' backgrounds thinly sketched. But it's hard to see how he could have done any better under such restrictions.
Equally, Newell can't be faulted for making full use of the big budget at his disposal to conjure up magnificently dressed sets and impressive, evocative landscape shots. It's no surprise to find that the whole thing looks positively Potterish (that's Harry not Dennis, obviously) in places. Despite the fears of some, there's nothing wrong with the performances.
Jeremy (War Horse) Irvine certainly looks rather too clean and well-nourished to convince as blacksmith's son Pip, but he's engaging enough.
Increasingly impressive Holliday Grainger seizes the opportunity to make her mark as Estella, the cold-hearted object of Pip's desires. And despite being the second youngest actress (after Gillian Anderson) to play Estella's spiteful guardian, tragic spinster Miss Haversham, Helena Bonham Carter dials down her usual broad performance to give the character more depth than the goth panto routine we might have anticipated.
While Mike Leigh's Happy-Go- Lucky gave little indication that its star, Sally Hawkins, had a bright future playing stern characters in heritage dramas, she builds on her nasty Mrs Reed in Fukanaga's Jane Eyre to deliver a memorable if brief performance as Pip's abusive sister, Mrs Joe, who can't wait to get shot of him.
Newell also reunites with two of his Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire stars. Robbie Coltrane is well cast as brusque London lawyer Jaggers, who represents the mysterious benefactor sponsoring Pip's transformation into a gentleman, and whose machinations provide the glue that holds the story together.
Better still is Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, the escaped criminal who menaces the young Pip (played by Irvine's younger brother Toby) and later becomes a key figure in his life. It's a perfect role for Fiennes, who exudes that familiar blend of malevolence and torment. Only when Magwitch is on screen does this Great Expectations ever threaten to give the Lean version a run for its money.