Mike Newell is one of those journeyman directors who has been steadily working since the ’60s, who rose through the ranks of British television, directing soaps and play-for-todays, until he hit his stride with “Donnie Brasco,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and the fourth Harry Potter movie. He’s not somebody whose name readily comes up when discussing film art, but I bet he paid off his mortgage ages ago. And now he steps up with a pretty faithful but truncated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”
The expectations, pardon the pun, on Mr. Newell however are whether he can shrug off the shadow of David Lean’s classic version of the tale of Pip. Yes, the ages of the actors are much better than a late-30s John Mills pretending to be a young man in his 20s, but Mr. Lean’s film has art and economy on its side. And another Harry Potter director, Alfonso Cuarun, tried to modernize the story in 1998 with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow with mixed results.
Mr. Newell, with writer-adapter David Nicholls, stick with the novel’s original setting and characters. A production of the BBC, it is lovingly designed to evoke every last smell and touch of Dickensian London. Coaches arrive in the city covered in muck and filth; the majority of the city’s denizens are covered in it, too. Rooms are grim and grey, with very little light coming in. Even the well-off live by fireplace and candlelight.
And it’s also stuffed, like a Christmas pudding, with name actors. Ralph Fiennes plays the convict Magwitch — who encounters the young Pip (Jeremy Irvine) on the Kentish marsh and starts the movie and the plot — while Robbie Coltrane plays Jaggers the lawyer, Helena Bonham-Carter plays the sad and creepy Miss Havisham, and Ewan Bremner plays Jaggers’ assistant Wemmick. I kept expecting Jim Broadbent to pop up at some point, to no avail.
But this is the story of Pip, and he is played as an adult by Jeremy Irvine, best known as the non-equine lead of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” He has the cleft chin and piercing blue eyes of a movie star, but he does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sulking about, as if smiling was seen as a weakness. Mr. Irvine does manage to elicit our sympathies however, and his later scenes with Mr. Fiennes are touching.
The problem with any Dickens adaptation for the screen is how much has to be left out to make it feature length, and how much to leave in to keep the story intact. Mr. Newell and Mr. Nicholls do quite a good job here, using visual signposts to work as shorthand for locations and returning to motifs again and again. The sprawling character lists that Dickens loved has been trimmed for sanity. But there’s also a sense that scenes were shot and then cut — a lot of traveling scenes feature dialog obviously taken from other times.
But as a movie, the plot is never confusing: This is the story of a poor orphan blacksmith who desires to be a “gentlemen” then fortuitously gets his chance, only to be reminded that he must make peace with his past, as well as uncovering the mystery of his circumstance, and longing after the icy girl Estella (Holliday Granger) who was his only friend in childhood. For those who have forgotten the novel — like myself — the film unspools this all masterfully and reminds one of none other than the Harry Potter novels. (Imagine that! J.K. Rowling cribbed from the best.)
* * * 1/2
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Toby Irvine Helena Bonham-Carter, Holliday Granger, Robbie Coltrane
Rating: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images
Length: 128 minutes
Playing at: Plaza de Oro