What I Watched Last Night: Great Expectations (2012)


Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Jason Flemyng, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irvine, Ralph Fiennes, Holiday Grainger

Everyone knows the story, but here it is anyway; a young orphan named Pip leads a hard life under disciplinarian Mrs Gargery and her fumbling bumpkin husband Joe. One day, he steals away to his parents’ grave and comes across the scarred and shackled Magwitch, a convict on the loose, whom he helps against his will. In a separate set of adventures, Pip is hired out as the physical and emotional plaything of the embittered Miss Havisham and her aloof heart-breaking apprentice, Estella. When Pip is of working age, he comes into a fortune from an ‘anonymous benefactor’, whereupon he  sets off for London in order to set straight his uncouth ways – by learning about cutlery and neckerchiefs, apparently – and in doing so warm Estella’s cold heart.

With any adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, including the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow modern day update, there’s an unshakeable element of ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em’ all’. This certainly holds true for Mike Newell’s (Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings)  2012 reiteration of Dickens’ well worn work; it’s tediously uninspired, with the direction and cinematography failing to ignite any sense of urgency or interest in Pip’s lifelong quest for acceptance and love. Two hours is not a long time in which to tell a story of such magnitude, and with the stunning 1946 David Lean version in every Dickens fan’s mind, most would expect nothing short of greatness . Sadly, all you get is mediocrity in pretty clothes.


The cast is an interesting mix, with comedy talent (in David Walliams and Ewen Bremner) thrown in with heavy hitting dramatic actors. Jason Flemyng (aka ‘Fatman’ in Lock Stock  and ‘Doorman’ in Kick Ass)  plays Joe the blacksmith in what is a very subtle, finely honed performance, while a creaking statue-like Helena Bonham Carter seems tailor-fit to the role of Miss Havisham. As Magwitch, Ralph Fiennes is, well, fine, although his accent does veer a little too far into the ‘apples an pears’ now and then. Both the leads are wrong for their parts; Jeremy Irvine fails to play Pip sympathetically, although it must be hard pretending to profess such undying passions for a character as prudish and unlikeable as Estella. Rooney Mara was called in to play the aforementioned temptress, but the role ended up going to Holiday Grainger; she’s by no means a bad actress, she just lacks the icy elegance needed to pull off such a perplexing character. Valerie Hobson still owns it, and most likely she always will.

Mike Newell’s Great Expectations  is a fairly insignificant piece, paling in comparison to some of the finer adaptations down the years and coming out only slightly better than a made-for-tv production. It’s all very English and more than a wee bit BBC, but if you’re a fan of the book and have (very) low expectations then there’s no harm in watching it.

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