A Dickens of a year draws to a close. We’ve had a lengthy party, celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of one of our most cherished writers. It’s been marked in all manner of ways: in commemoration, in lectures, in biography (a very good one by Claire Tomalin) and in fresh adaptations of some of his books for television and cinema.
In fact the year has been bookended by visual adaptations of Great Expectations, a novel that might be said to have put the mellow in drama, the first a three part BBC series screened last December, and now a new cinema version directed by Mike Newell, which I saw on Friday, the day it went on general release in
Who needs this?, you might ask; after all it’s been done so many times, most notably in the David Lean version of 1946, starring John Mills as Pip and Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch, the standard against which all others tend to be judged.
Who needs it? I do, that’s the answer; I needed Newell’s honest and imaginative recreation, Great Expectations as Dickens would have expected but presented afresh for modern eyes, carrying overtones of the director’s previous encounter with the Harry Potter franchise, lovely little touches of Gothic humour. It may be sacrilege to say so but the Lean version is dating, and in some ways not dating that well. It’s just a little too stiff in parts. Oh, I simply can’t resist the sacrilegious!
Great Expectations, if you are not familiar with the book, is a riddle, wrapped up in an enigma, inside a mystery. It begins with a terrifying encounter in a graveyard on bleak Kentish marshland between Pip Pirrip (Toby Irvine), the novel’s narrator, then a child, and Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict who, by his appearance, might very well have escaped from hell. Ralph Fiennes – keep those Harry Potter parallels rolling! – was a superb growling Magwitch, hungry not just for food and drink, but hungry, too, as it turns out, for human charity, the keystone, really, of the whole book.
David Nichols’ screenplay is excellent because – in contrast to the TV version – he gives Magwitch’s speech to the six-year-old Pip word for word;
You bring me, tomorrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old
over yonder. You do it and you never dare to say a word or dare to make a sign
concerning your having seen such a person as me, or any person sumever, and you
shall be let to live. You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no
matter how small it is, and your heart and liver shall be tore out, roasted and
ate. Now, I ain't alone, as you may think I am. There's a young man hid with
me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the
words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting
at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to
attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his doors, may be
warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think
himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep his way to
him and tear him open. I am keeping that young man from harming you at the
present moment, but with great difficulty. I find it wery hard to hold that
young man off of your inside. Now, what do you say?’
Oh, that young man, laid on thick in only the way that Dickens can lay on thick! It’s all rather ridiculous, terrifying enough from a child’s point of view, as George Orwell noted in his brilliant essay on Charles Dickens, but a wholly inaccurate depiction of Magwitch the man, who is not a bat out of hell at all but something of a holy innocent, quite childish, as we later discover, in his exaggerated sense of gratitude.
Pip’s next big encounter is with the eccentric Miss Havisham, a bat who lives like a bat among the ruins of a long dead wedding feast. She is a jilted bride, played here by Helena Bonham Carter, a ghostly and Gothic presence. I could not help but recall The Corpse Bride, an animation directed by her husband Tim Burton, where she voices Emily, the title character. It’s in Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion that Pip is introduced to Estella (Helena Barlow), her ward, a contrast in class and manners that is destined to have a great impact on the boy’s life. The ghost bride is a puppet master, with Pip and Estella as her leading marionettes.
All in all the cast were first class, minor and major. Jason Fleming was a super Joe Gargery, Pip’s blacksmith brother-in-law, mentor and legal guardian. Sally Hawkins was amusing enough as Pip’s older sister and Joe’s shrewish wife, though she hammed up the shrewishness to the point of excess. In the minor roles David Williams was an excellent Uncle Pumbelchook, just as I imagine him.
The laurel wreath I award to Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter again!) as the evasive and self serving lawyer Jaggers. It is he who comes to the blacksmith’s forge to tell Pip, now grown up and played by Jeremy Irvine (Toby’s big brother), that he has come into money, that he is to leave his lowly life and become a gentleman in London; that he has ‘great expectations.’
Where these expectations come from and who is Pip’s mystery benefactor is the device upon which the rest of the story turns. He believes that it’s Miss Havisham, an illusion she does nothing to disabuse, just as she does nothing to disabuse him that it is all part of a plan for him to marry Estella. It isn’t; Estella is intended as a weapon, a heartless missile, Miss Havisham’s revenge on the whole male world. Pip’s real benefactor when he comes – yes, a he - comes as a shock, though it should be no shock to you even if you are not familiar with the story. After all, I’ve already given it away.
So, then, Pip is magically transformed from an honest blacksmith into a ‘gentleman’ which in essence means someone who has nothing to do but waste time and waste money, a shiftless fop and a snob, evidenced in his conduct towards Joe when he comes to visit. As a snob he moves only in the ‘best society’, and the ‘best society’ here is the Finch Club, headed by Bentley Drummel (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), a collection of unprepossessing boors and loud mouths whose idea of fun is food fights. I simply refuse to accept that there was no Bullingdon Club reference here! But in the end Pip comes good, losing pretence and gaining himself in acts of benevolence and charity, a counterpoint to his forced charity in the graveyard.
As a love story Newell’s movie does not work; there is simply not enough screen time between the mature Pip and Estella, played in adulthood by Holliday Granger. But as a tribute to Dickens it does, to all the twists and turns in which he delighted as a story-teller. The set design and the period details are all first class, with
London looking even more frightening at
points than those Kentish marshes. Yes, it has been modernised without
being updated and reinterpreted, something I personally loathe. Of this
movie I had great expectations. These expectations were not
So, I bid a premature farewell to 2012; a farewell to the year of Dickens.