When Dickens hits the big screen, you naturally get a lot of plot for your money, which can be a mixed blessing. Ultimately, the substantial and often involving aspects of director Mike Newell’s adaptation of Great Expectations tends to get bogged down by the knotty entanglements of a grand and complicated tale, crammed in not always graceful ways into a two-hour time frame. Even so, the new Newell version of Great Expectations, the seventh screen adaptation to date, is — thanks to David Nicholls’s screenplay and attention to period detail — a faithfully Dickensian encounter. It serves as a fine young person’s guide to the classic, especially compared to the modernized Alfonso Cuarón number from 1998, with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Pity and savor our hero Pip (played by Jeremy Irvine and his younger brother, Toby), a poor young blacksmith in training swept up into the lavish and evil scheme of his landed gentrification in London. Lurking in the margins of our young and naïve hero’s fate are the machinations of heavily backstoried adult manipulators Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, the convict who would be hero. At the core is Pip’s unquenchable love for the pale, lovely, and emotionally cool Estella (Holliday Grainger), whose affections may or may not be won in the purposefully vague finale here. Alas, the plots thicken, and sweeten, and thicken some more.
In this film, some of the more pleasurable parts are on the supportive sidelines, principally in the form of Helena Bonham Carter, brandishing her deliciously sinister side as Miss Havisham, and Ralph Fiennes as believably scraggly and noble Magwitch. With their raggedy and game character-actor powers, Carter and Fiennes gruffly outshine the solid but young leads in a story where the starkly contrasting milieus of social stations, morals, and manners play critical roles.
For all its worthy and working strategies, though, things fall short in the latest Great Expectations, and expectations are short-sold. Locations and production values are true to the period, but the musical score is all distracting modern movie lip gloss, amid other compromising factors. This BBC-funded film too often feels like its dramatic dimensions narrow down to the cozy and glossy qualities of BBC television miniseries, packed into a too-small and too-smug box.