Watching the latest “Great Expectations,” one can’t help but think Helena Bonham Carter has spent her entire career auditioning for the role of Miss Havisham. The jilted, wilted bride whose bitterness she carries into her dotage is the very picture of the wild-eyed, wilder-haired Carter.
Mike Newell, who gave us one of the most sumptuous-looking Harry Potter pictures (“Goblet of Fire”), conjures up a lush, period-perfect version of the oft-filmed Charles Dickens tale of a poor boy whose act of kindness as a child is repaid, with interest – and with a catch.
Newell and screenwriter David Nicholls move beyond the familiar “spoiler alert” beats of this over-familiar story – a more definitive BBC/PBS miniseries aired just two years ago – and aim for the periphery. We dwell on the dissipation of Pip, the lad plucked from his brother-in-law’s blacksmith shop, told he has come into money and “great expectations” and that he will now be set up as a “young gentleman.”
And by spending more time on Pip (Jeremy Irvine) carousing in the gentleman’s club called the Finches, he seems less the victim and more a Dickensian cautionary lesson. As he lusts for the always-out-of-reach Estella (Holliday Grainger), the manipulations of Miss Havisham seem more like something he deserves. His supposed benefactor, a woman bent on making him fall for Estella and breaking Pip’s heart when he can’t have her, is teaching the lad to know his place, “expectations” or not.
That robs the tale of pathos, and the young would-be lovers aren’t compelling enough to render their big moments poignant.
Ah, but that’s what the rest of the cast is for. Newell cast the great Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, the convict tiny Pip (Toby Irvine, Jeremy’s younger brother) helps that fateful day on the moors. Fiennes is everything you want in a Magwitch – terrifying, mercurial, sentimental and loyal. His threats to the child have a chill that transcends the ages.
Robbie Coltrane makes a thoroughly corrupt Jaggers, the lawyer who feeds Pip his benefactor’s money and merely tut-tuts at the way the boy goes through it. David Walliams tickles as the creepy family friend Mr. Pumblechook, who teaches us what the phrase “raised by hand” (slapped about) meant for a child of the day. Olly Alexander does a great turn as the not-all-young-gentlemen-are-rich-jerks confidante, Herbert Pocket. Jason Flemyng is splendid as one character to truly pluck at the heartstrings here, Pip’s adoring blacksmith brother-in-law, Joe.
But the revelation is how sweet, bubbly Sally Hawkins of “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Blue Jasmine” transforms herself into a shrieking harridan as Mrs. Joe, Pip’s corporal punishment-loving sister.
Whatever chemistry the back-and-forth among the romantic leads lacks, this stellar supporting cast and the handsome production values that bring back 1830s and ’40s England make up for it. So even though this isn’t the greatest of “Expectations” – David Lean’s 1946 black-and-white version will break your heart – it’s still a pretty grand one.
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