Director: Mike Newell. BBC/Lipsync/Number 9/Unison/iDeal Partners Film Fund. (12A)
Producers: David Faigenblum, Elizabeth Karlsen, Emanuel Michael.
Writer: David Nicholls.
Camera: John Mathieson.
Music: Richard Hartley.
Sets: Jim Clay.
Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane, Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Sophie Rundle, Ewan Bremner, David Walliams, Jessie Cave, Tamzin Outhwaite, Olly Alexander, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Toby Irvine, Helena Barlow.
A perverse destiny is spread before the innocent young blacksmith’s apprentice Pip (Irvine and Irvine) when he is one day called upon to go and play at the mouldering house of Miss Havisham (Bonham-Carter), a middle-aged and dotty woman, and her haughty adopted daughter Estella (Barlow and Grainger). Through a series of meetings, he becomes dissatisfied with his lot in life. He is therefore delighted to receive news as a teenager that he has come into a handsome annuity. Believing Havisham to be his benefactor, he travels to London, forgetting his nearest and dearest Joe (Flemyng), his true and faithful father figure, to pursue the life of a gentleman. It is a decision that has devastating ramifications for all around him.
There have been umpteen adaptations of Dickens’ perennial psychological classic stretching right back to the silent era. Writers and directors of the past have cleverly dug beneath the surface of Dickens’ warped epic to tease out the subtleties and nuances to bring an individual stamp to bear on their own productions (the recent BBC TV adaptation for instance used actress Gillian Anderson to spine-tingling effect as a child-like, whispering Miss Havisham, sexual thrall to Douglas Booth as an impossibly beautiful Pip).
As time goes by, it should come as no surprise that such literary liberties will inevitably thin, if one wishes to remain faithful to the original text.
This is writer Nicholls and director Newell’s problem – how to reinterpret Dickens’ text to make it live again when so many good ideas have already been pilfered by other artists, and still keep this as a recognisably Dickensian product (2012 being, as many of us know, the bicentennial of the author’s birth). The solution they come to – don’t reinterpret it too much, but push that bit further with the performances from a terrific cast. And, in that regard alone, this is a successful approach.
Fiennes is a terrifying Magwitch. The opening scenes capture the full shock and violence of that first chapter when he grabs Pip, menaces him and turns him upside down. Only Fiennes could then portray him later as a pentetant man, humbled by Pip the gentlemen, his very own creation and self declared son. He delicately and rather weirdly strokes Pip’s handsome face, half in possession and half in love it seems.
Bonham-Carter seems slightly subdued in what should be the strongest part. She plays Havisham as if she is a little lost. Possibly this was the whole point of the characterisation, but the mind games she plays with Pip and Estella seem weaker as a result. What is obviously child abuse in the novel seems more like an old girl being a bit daft and having a wild eye moment in her wheelchair. None the less, she has some fun being horrible, with her pantaloons on full display for the children playing cards in front of her.
Coltrane is a strong and quite manly Jaggers, contrasting with the wonderfully supercilious and aggravating Walliams as Uncle Pumblechook who declares “Why are the young never grateful?” as a table of older diners gorge themselves ahead of the hungry, scrawny young Pip. Here is a man who would gladly sell any relative, no matter their age or infirmity, for an extra rung up the social ladder.
Newell indulges in some nice visual touches – the gloominess of the early scenes is of course almost a cliche in Dickens adaptations, all running shadows and silhouettes. There is a ready intimacy in the medium shots of the actors faces (made more obvious in the hyper sexualised turns from Grainger, who practically loses her character’s ice cool demeanour as she pants after Irvine’s sulky, testosterone fuelled Pip). The Judge at Magwitch’s trial sits almost three stories higher than the defendant, a symbolic image if ever there was.
All in all, an entertaining adaptation, it suffers only from not being especially distinguished.