Helena Bonham Carter plays the dreaded Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations." Credit: Johann Persson
‘Great Expectations’ Director: Mike Newell Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter Rating: PG-13 3 (out of 5) Globes
Unlike Shakespeare, Charles Dickens doesn’t get many flashy modern updates. His work is era- and location-specific: grimy England of the mid-19th century, where the chasm between the classes was epic and a sore on the eye. “Great Expectations” was dragged into the present for a phantasmagorically pretty (but brain-drained) version in 1998, directed by “Gravity”’s Alfonso Cuaron and starring Ethan Hawke at his most ‘90s mopey. But it belongs in the distant past, where the times and (especially) the language can truly flourish.
Of course, ask for a straight-up adaptation, and you get this new “Great Expectations,” which is perfectly acceptable, highly respectable and slightly dull (if never boring). The plot — in which young Pip (eventually played by strapping Jeremy Irvine) goes from grimy working class to idle gentleman in London, with the help of a secret benefactor — has been brutally condensed but hits all the necessary plot points and moves swiftly. The fine cast is headed by Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, the scary on-the-lam con with a secret. He’s excellent, as would happen if one cast Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch.
Of course, these aren’t actual problems for a picture to have. One of its few real issues would be Helena Bonham Carter. She’s long been more machine than woman, which may seem ideal for the twisted, mummy-like Miss Havisham, a character that traditionally coaxes the ham out of whoever plays her. But Carter is all spastic, OTT technique, no humanity, particularly when she’s supposed to finally reveal some. (Flashbacks to the day she was jilted at the altar are similarly misjudged.)
What is does get right, which Dickens adaptations often don’t, is its violently shifting tones. Dickens is hilarious and Dickens is brutal. Newell gets this, even moreso than the rightly celebrated 1940s adaptations by David Lean (including “Great Expectations”). This version isn’t exactly a laugh riot, but it does not sheathe the beautifully named Mr. Pumblechook (played by “Little Britain”’s David Walliams) from its running time. It’s occasionally bouncy, but then not afraid to roll around in the muck.
It still lacks a definitive reason for being — that said, outside of being an adaptation of a great by a great. The world can always stand to reminded, even for the ten thousandth time, of towering art, even from those that include a boring lead who seems to go through a trendy haircut every reel, one a mildly Victorian twist on Justin Bieber’s current ‘do. If it does anything more than remind you of another art work’s greatness is another story.