Last month, audiences were given a new adaptation of a classic story with dubious results. "Romeo & Juliet" featured sweeping visuals and an eye for lush romance, but never quite seemed to grasp the meaning of its source material.
This month, another classic story receives the big-screen treatment, but there's nothing sweeping or lush about it. Director Mike Newell's interpretation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" offers up a bleak 19th-century world full of hypocrisy, intrigue and characters far too flawed to understand the meaning of love. In short, it presents the dark side of having all your dreams come true.
The plot stays true to the book, though trimming a character or two to streamline the action. Our protagonist is Pip, an orphan from the laboring class who shows kindness to an escaped convict named Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) one Christmas. Soon after, young Pip meets a wealthy local eccentric named Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), who is determined to avenge her years-ago broken heart by turning her adopted daughter Estella into the ultimate cold heartbreaker. Pip falls for unattainable Estella, and is eventually sent back to his laborer destiny to work with his blacksmith brother-in-law, Joe.
Then things take a turn for the better kind of. Years later, a lawyer out of London named Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) arrives to tell Pip (played as a young adult by Jeremy Irvine) that he has "great expectations." A mysterious unnamed benefactor has offered his vast fortune to Pip, and suddenly the life of a gentleman is back within reach. Pip moves to London, teams up with a group of rowdy upper-class bachelors called The Finches, and even crosses paths with his long-lost Estella (Holliday Grainger).
You'd assume that at this point in the film the dreary backdrop of rural labor-class England would be replaced by the resplendent glamour of Pip's new upper-class surroundings, but that isn't what happens. In spite of some nice apartments and generous meals, faraway London seems almost more bleak and filthy than Pip's poverty-infested origins. And his social climbing isn't quite the rags-to-riches tale he anticipates, either, especially when he discovers the identity of his benefactor. If it were a romance, "Great Expectations" might focus its time on Pip's attempt to court Estella, but "Great Expectations" isn't a romance. It's a critique of materialism and class and the dark natures that often hide behind appealing exteriors.
The second half of the film, like the book, gradually uncovers a series of dark interconnected narratives that spares no character. Even wide-eyed Pip becomes difficult to sympathize with as his newfound wealth alienates him from what remains of his family back home. To his credit, Newell doesn't try to gloss over any of Dickens' dark source material. If anything, he'd have to be accused of being too bleak. One of the primary themes is the struggle to understand the value of people vs. status, and few characters in this story come off as heroes. Even the well-intentioned have their shady pasts.
It's a lot to pack into a two-hour film, and Newel (who also directed "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and the fourth Harry Potter film) does a solid job with what he's given. Irvine and Grainger don't exactly explode from the screen with chemistry, but in a way, they aren't supposed to. The supporting cast brings the goods here, with Coltrane's manipulative Jaggers, Fiennes as Magwitch and Bonham Carter stealing every one of her scenes as Miss Havisham.
With all the sci-fi/fantasy and CGI animated fare that has filled theaters in the last year (and is set to continue through the holiday season), some audiences may be happy to have an adaptation of a classic earth-bound Dickens novel for a change of pace. But though "Great Expectations" is far from a letdown, it doesn't quite feel like it packs the punch its source material deserves.
"Great Expectations" is a mostly mild PG-13, earning its rating for a pair of violent scenes that may be too much for younger audiences.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.