Good, yes. But great …….?

Robbie Coltrane’s Jaggers casts a long, dark shadow

Title:                         Great Expectations

Certificate:              12A

Director:                  Mike Newell

Major players:         Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane

Out of five?             3.5

A remake of a favourite film provokes mixed feelings.  The baggage of memories from the previous version weighs heavy and can never be completely pushed away.  And comparisons are always inevitable.

This was exactly my dilemma in seeing Mike Newell’s re-working of Dickens’ Great Expectations.  David Lean’s version from 1946 ranks in my top ten and I knew this new interpretation would have to go some to get anywhere near it.  Surprisingly, there were moments when it came closer than I’d expected …….

Based on one of Dickens’ shorter novels, it has fewer sub-plots and characters, making it easier to film.  It’s the story of orphan Pip who, brought up in a smithy, comes into money and becomes a gentleman in London.  The identity of his benefactor is kept from him, although he suspects he knows it.  Then he dramatically discovers he’s wrong.

But the comparative brevity of the book hasn’t prevented director Newell from removing chunks of the plot so the film fits into just over two hours.  While this is understandable, it also gives the film has a lurching quality because some of the necessary links are missing.  And the audience’s understanding suffers at the same time.

Visually, the re-creation of Dickensian London is vividly unpleasant: muddy, squelchy, overcrowded and grubby.  By our standards, it’s deeply unpleasant – and it’s just as alien for Pip when he arrives, contrasting starkly with the sea and clear skies of the Kent coast.

Newell has assembled a distinguished British cast, yet some of the real gems are tucked away amongst the supporting characters.  Ewen Bremner is the perfect Wemmick, mixing a compassionate heart with a tougher exterior – an essential for Jaggers’ clerk.  And there’s great cameos from Tamzin Outhwaite as Mollie, Jaggers’ housekeeper with a past, and Sally Hawkins as the vile tempered Mrs Jo Gargery.

Helena Bonham Carter’s casting as Miss Havisham is eye-catching, but ultimately dissatisfying.  One of the most fascinating of Dickens’ women, here she is a batty old trout one minute, and a petulant teenager the next.  She lacks the charisma of previous incarnations and her death scene, while more realistic than most, comes close to the absurd.  As does she.

But Robbie Coltrane is fascinating as Jaggers. He is the ultimate manipulator – a spymaster almost – and his physical presence means that he literally, as well as figuratively, casts a shadow over everybody he meets. He claims everything is done at the behest of his clients and, while it may be, his dedication to them means they have unwittingly handed him control over their lives.  He nicknames Bentley Drummel “Spider” – yet it is he, Jaggers, that weaves the intricate web.

If the film has a theme, it is the nature of parenthood, and the role of the father especially.  Pip has two “fathers”.  His brother-in-law, Jo Gargery (unassumingly played by Jason Flemyng) brings him up, only to lose him to his benefactor.  His second “father” is the convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), but both men have more in common than might be imagined – constancy in their affection for Pip and forebearance of his cruel snobbery.  Despite their similarities, their lives have followed contrasting paths, simply by virtue of their birth.  It could so easily have been the other way around.

The ending of Great Expectations has always proved problematic.  The book is ambiguous as to the future for Pip and Estella, the David Lean film far too optimistic.  Before last month’s screening at the London Film Festival, Newell said his ending would be somewhere in between.  While in terms of the storyline, it is closer to the book, it probably just edges itself into the ‘happy ending’ side of the line – but only just.

Newell has produced a good – and momentarily very good – interpretation of a classic.  But what it fails to do is fit together as a whole.  The better performances help you overlook this shortcoming but, ultimately, the small but crucial pieces missing from the jigsaw make their absence felt.

This review is now available to download as a podcast from


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