‘Great Expectations’ movie review: Ralph Fiennes in joyless Dickens adaptation

A (reasonably) faithful, well-produced take on the Charles Dickens classic, 2012’s Great Expectations starts out just fine but soon devolves into a routine production that seems less vested in telling the story in an interesting way and more interested in just getting it over with. 

With all the great adaptations of this story out there – from the 1946 David Lean classic to the 1989 miniseries with Anthony Hopkins to the (underrated) 1998 contemporary version starring Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro – there’s simply no room for this bland cliff notes version.

Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), this adaptation is bolstered by a strong cast, looks slick and polished with cinematography by John Mathieson (Gladiator), boasts an evocative original soundtrack by Richard Hartley, and manages to stay mostly faithful to the source. 

But despite that, there’s so much missing; if we just wanted the barebones story, a plot synopsis would have sufficed. Cramming everything into two hours – but keeping all the characters and storylines – gives the film a rushed, disinterested feel. There’s no fire in this story, and no joy in the telling of it. 

It starts out well enough, with young Pip (Toby Irvine) scared into stealing bread for a convict (Ralph Fiennes), and at the mercy of his abusive older sister (Sally Hawkins) and her benevolent, simple husband (Jason Flemyng). Fiennes does memorable work here; you can feel the grime seeping out of him. 

Later, Pip is “recruited” by Uncle Pumblechook (David Wallaims) to be a playmate for decrepit (but rich) old spinster Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) and her heir Estella, whom Pip falls in love with. Havisham had her heart broken years earlier, and is raising Estella to be as cynical as she is; Pip is a stepping stone whose heart can be broken.

Flash-forward years later, and the film begins to fall apart. There’s one real problem with this version of Great Expectations. While the supporting cast does (mostly) excellent work, the two leads (older Pip and Estella, played by Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger) feel poorly miscast: far too contemporary for the film that surrounds them, they struggle to blend into the material and frequently distract. 

They also give weak interpretations of the characters that fail to endear the audience to them. Pip – who receives a great deal of money from an anonymous benefactor and moves to London – has a tremendous character arc in the Dickens story, but the older Irvine plays him one-note throughout, a suave and elegant male model with perpetual three-day stubble.

Estella, likewise, fails to grab us: she’s completely one-dimensional as played by Grainger, lacking the spark that attracts Pip, the spark that Havisham has all but extinguished (meanwhile, the actress is in danger of being typecast after roles in this, Jane Eyre, Bel Ami, and Anna Karenina the past two years). And while the supporting cast does better with their characters (particularly Flemyng and Fiennes, and Olly Alexander as Herbert Pocket), they simply lack the screen time to make an impact. 

While we’ve had some interesting takes on literary classics the past few years – including the aforementioned Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre – this version of Great Expectations is strictly by-the-numbers. And it’s another missed opportunity for a Dickens adaptation, which seem to be struggling in recent years (I was a fan of Polanski’s Oliver Twist, though few others seemed to be). Somehow, I doubt that the 3D, parkour-oriented Twist, produced by Red Bull, will right the ship.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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