Newell's 'Expectations': Dickens Done Accurate, Humdrum

Directed by: Mike Newell; Runtime: 128 minutes
Grade: C

Hollywood and independent cinema seems to follow periodic cycles of adapting certain literary classics over the course of several years, hitting all the major players -- Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens -- in clumped succession and then backing off for a few years until they can go at it again. Gauging by the recent releases of Wuthering Heights, Romeo & Juliet, and Jane Eyre, the most current of these cycles has produced entries with two noticeable similarities: for one, aside from the Oscar-nominated production values in Joe Wright's take on Anna Karenina, they've gone under the radar with little to no fanfare; and two, they've tried desperately hard to balance traditional storytelling with innovative updates. Therefore, it's almost comforting to see Mike Newell's Great Expectations follow such a traditional path in adapting Charles Dickens' novel; however, its handsome cinematography and commendable performances ultimately can't shake the sensation that it's going through the motions, relegating it to yet another take on the material that rarely captures more than small-screen gravitas.

As with most proper versions of the story, it begins with a young orphaned boy, Pip, encountering an escaped convict (a gruff and menacing Ralph Fiennes) who frightens him into bringing food and drink before the authorities begin their manhunt. Shortly after, while under the guardianship of his blacksmith brother-in-law (Jason Flemyng), Pip finds himself "employed" by a wealthy, reclusive woman, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), as entertainment for her prim and proper ward, Estella, where they play cards, walk the grounds, and develop a tentative bond. Many years pass after Pip (Jeremy Irvine) parts ways with the Havishams, leaving him a strapping and simple young blacksmithing apprentice with a hunger for knowledge, fueled by his desire to reunite with Estella. One evening, a lawyer (Robbie Coltraine) arrives at their workshop to notify Pip that he's been offered a handsome estate from an anonymous benefactor who's destined to make him a proper gentlemen. Ever yearning to become a man worthy of Estella (Holliday Grainger) and full of assumptions about his benefactor, he doesn't hesitate to make the journey to London.

Director Newell comprehends how to craft distinct visual tones within frequently-done settings: the bustling hallways and stairwells of Hogwarts, the byzantine maze of streets in a fictionalized Persia, and now the realistic disparity between the wide-open countryside and cramped-but-desirable society in 19th Century England. He captures the rusticity and cluttered streets of a bustling London with moody cinematography from John Mathieson, rich with longing glances at tall grass waving in the countryside breeze (triggering memories of the photographer's work in Gladiator) and the dark corners of lavish, echoic apartments well out of Pip's depth. I found myself more emotionally absorbed in the progression of the lyrical images -- a young Pip cleaning the soot from his parents' graves, iron jail cells dangling above a road, the mirth generated by a blacksmith's forge, a wealthy club of men drunkenly destroying glasses in a fireplace -- than the way Newell directs Dickens' tetual drama itself, most of which appear in the early stages of the protagonist's life.

It's doubtful that we'll ever reach a point where Pip's journey won't apply to contemporary culture in one form or another, even as the face of wealth change with passing years. One Day author/screenwriter David Nicholls suitably underscores the timeless themes of Dickens' book in his script: manufactured social stature, the appreciation of those who do without, and the elevated importance that wealth brings to undeserving individuals. It's a dutiful and reverent adaptation that hits the right notes throughout Pip's fond-yet-disposable treatment by the Havishams as a boy and his assimilation into aristocratic culture at an older age, yet with that closeness to the source material also comes the staleness of a lack of much updating. Comparisons to David Lean's masterful adaptation, a good 60+ years this film's senior, are to be expected given its dedication to faithfulness, leaving Newell's film in a state of needing to justify its reason for being. And it never really does so, leaving very few distinctive fingerprints while exploring Pip's melancholy fixation on Estella and his morphing personality in the presence of prosperity.

Jeremy Irvine, of War Horse notoriety, is adequate enough as Pip, his melancholy glances and flickers of passion often resembling how a young Ethan Hawke might look in a textbook production of Great Expectations (instead of Cuaron's more divergent take on the character). There are flashes where his grief over Estella, his fury with other wealthy gentlemen, and his frustration with his elder benefactors capably embody the character's increasing world-weary attitude, while his not-quite-paternal bond with Jason Flemyng's Joe offers some of the film's strongest emotional responses. His chemistry with Holliday Grainger, a veteran of several of the costume dramas mentioned earlier, leaves plenty to be desired, though: a degree of distance between Pip and Estella is to be expected, but they can't pull off the internal conflict brewing between them over Estella's complex attraction to Pip and the expectations Miss Havesham has of her. Helena Bonham Carter shows restraint in the manic, manipulative affection of that batty spinster perpetually in her wedding dress, the actress' idiosyncratic talent giving the character a subtle edge with her gravelly somber voice and traveling eyes.

Newell's Great Expectations progresses in a suitably watchable fashion throughout most of its runtime, but it really gets rusty in the joints within a slipshod and rambling final act, arguably the text's most important in underscoring themes and the characters' clandestine motivations. Dickens' text appears over-dramatic when filtered through this series of flashbacks that reveal the truths kept from Pip, a collage of dated, visually-distorted images -- of death, courtrooms, and tweaked glimpses at Pip's past -- that try a bit too hard to convey disorientation in an impressionable Pip's mind against the otherwise attractively-composed film. It's one of only a few distinctive fingerprints left by the director as his take on the classic resolves its climactic blend of tragic and bittersweet tones; however, it's also not enough to color the relative strengths that precede it, culminating in an straight adaptation that proves that modernization of classics isn't necessary ... but it's crucial to hammer those familiar elements in a fresh way.

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