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Would you want this man looming out of the fog? Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations

According to the Internet Movie Database, 1897’s Death of Nancy Sykes — a long lost production based on a single scene from Oliver Twist — was the first screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ work. Since then, of course, the adaptations have flowed virtually non-stop, with well over 300 different Dickens features hitting screens big and small in the intervening century and a bit. And still they keep coming: IMDb lists four more features as currently “in development”.

The latest to hit cinemas, director Mike Newell’s take on Great Expectations, has some particularly big shoes to fill. Opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood on Friday, Nov. 8, this Great Expectations will be endlessly (and perhaps unfairly) compared to David Lean’s near perfect 1946 version – and, sure enough, it does pale in comparison. That said, it’s far from a complete waste of your time. 

A star-studded affair that thankfully takes few liberties with the source material, Newell’s film looks gorgeous courtesy of two-time Oscar nominee Joe Mathieson’s magnificent, surprisingly sunny cinematography. Taking full advantage of some attractive Kent locations, Great Expectations makes up in widescreen vistas and frock flick trappings what it lacks in its predecessor’s gothic atmosphere.

The story, of course, is a familiar one. Orphan Pip (Toby Irvine, looking uncannily like Mark Lester in Oliver!), marking time as a blacksmith’s apprentice, encounters escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) in the churchyard where his mother is buried. After feeding the man a purloined pork pie and seeing him rearrested by patrolling soldiers, Pip is invited to spend time in the company of spurned bride Miss Havisham (a too young Helena Bonham Carter in one of her patented frightwig roles) and fellow orphan Estella (Helena Barlow).

The seeds of love amongst the dust and cobweb-encrusted wedding banquet ruins duly planted, Pip’s time at the Havisham estate abruptly comes to an end. Years pass, and now a young man, Pip finds himself the beneficiary of an anonymous legacy that requires he give up smithing in favor of the indolent life of a city gent. He’s expressly forbidden from knowing the identity of his secret Santa – but when Magwitch makes an unexpected reappearance, it becomes impossible to suppress the truth.

As in Lean’s film, Great Expectations most memorable scenes come early. The menace of Magwitch and the mystery of Miss Havisham are easy hooks on which to hang to rest of the story, which despite the best efforts of all involved is simply not as interesting as one would like. That’s as much Dickens responsibility, of course, as it is the filmmakers.

What Newell and company are responsible for, however, is the questionable casting of Jeremy Irvine as the adult Pip. While Irvine’s acting is passable, he looks like he belongs on the cover of a 1980s romance novel. John Mills he decidedly is not. The supporting cast, happily, is rather better — in addition to Carter and Fiennes (who continues to improve with age), Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng and Sally Hawkins are all on hand. They may not be as pretty as Irvine, but they certainly render the film quite watchable.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...