Contains spoilers, though possibly not accurate ones.
Yesterday I went to see the recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell. Having fallen in love with a trailer for this film in the bombastic tedium of adverts which preceded my viewing of Argo, I decided to book tickets immediately. I had known of the original book by Dickens for as long as I can remember, knowing it to be regarded as a classic example of literature. It is fair to say I had great expectations for this film… (I’m so sorry, but that was inevitable).
I’m afraid to say these expectations were not met. While the film was highly atmospheric and visually stunning, with excellent acting all through, I simply didn’t ‘get it’. Perhaps this is because I haven’t read the book before, but I just did not understand what was happening for a large amount of time. Characters seemed to say things and commit actions not based on any clear motivation, but because it’s what the script required them to do to advance the film. How was Pip chosen by Miss Havisham to become Estella’s playmate and, practice heartbreak – or whatever he was? Why such rushed reactions to Pip’s fortune? I was completely lost in the flurry of names and explanations which dealt with Pip’s benefactor and the story of Estella’s parents. I am still clueless as to who exactly did what in the conning of Miss Havisham, frantically piecing together faces and names but failing. Mike Newell also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I consider to be one of the weaker Potter films and I would guess butchered the source material in a similar way in order to create a thriller.
I was unconvinced by the love story; Pip’s love for Estella seemed unfounded and the character of Estella herself was utterly unbelievable. This is not a fault on the acting, I just failed to comprehend the point of her. But what was most unconvincing, and I think this is a flaw on Dickens’ part, is the treatment of poverty. George Orwell, despite acknowledging Dickens’ passion for helping the poor, argued that he seemed to lack any knowledge of how poverty actually works. Having seen this film I am forced to agree. When he became ‘a gentleman’, Pip’s character completely changed. While I can understand his effort to learn socially accepted enunciation and manners, he becomes a different person when living in London. This is acknowledged by Pip’s step brother Joe upon visiting the big city, yet I don’t believe it.
Despite this flurry of complaints, I did enjoy the film. The twists kept me engaged as far as I understood them and the development of Pip’s character was fascinating to behold. The portrayal of Victorian England contained enjoyable humour behind the serious themes and, visually, felt authentic. But ultimately I left the cinema unsure of what the point of the film had been. Great Expectations has confirmed my belief of the superiority of the book over the film, and in future I will be hesitant to make the mistake again of watching the film first.
Final rating: 6/10