Hollywood and independent cinema seems to follow periodic cycles of adapting certain literary classics over the course of several years, hitting all the major players -- Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens -- in clumped succession and then backing off for a few years until they can go at it again. Gauging by the recent releases of Wuthering Heights, Romeo & Juliet, and Jane Eyre, the most current of these cycles has produced entries with two noticeable similarities: for one, aside from the Oscar-nominated production values in Joe Wright's take on Anna Karenina, they've gone under the radar with little to no fanfare; and two, they've tried desperately hard to balance traditional storytelling with innovative updates. Therefore, it's almost comforting to see Mike Newell's Great Expectations follow such a traditional path in adapting Charles Dickens' novel; however, its handsome cinematography and commendable performances ultimately can't shake the sensation that it's going through the motions, relegating it to yet another take on the material that rarely captures more than small-screen gravitas.
As with most proper versions of the story, it begins with a young orphaned boy, Pip, encountering an escaped convict (a gruff and menacing Ralph Fiennes) who frightens him into bringing food and drink before the authorities begin their manhunt. Shortly after, while under the guardianship of his blacksmith brother-in-law (Jason Flemyng), Pip finds himself "employed" by a wealthy, reclusive woman, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), as entertainment for her prim and proper ward, Estella, where they play cards, walk the grounds, and develop a tentative bond. Many years pass after Pip (Jeremy Irvine) parts ways with the Havishams, leaving him a strapping and simple young blacksmithing apprentice with a hunger for knowledge, fueled by his desire to reunite with Estella. One evening, a lawyer (Robbie Coltraine) arrives at their workshop to notify Pip that he's been offered a handsome estate from an anonymous benefactor who's destined to make him a proper gentlemen. Ever yearning to become a man worthy of Estella (Holliday Grainger) and full of assumptions about his benefactor, he doesn't hesitate to make the journey to London.
Director Newell comprehends how to craft distinct visual tones within frequently-done settings: the bustling hallways and stairwells of Hogwarts, the byzantine maze of streets in a fictionalized Persia, and now the realistic disparity between the wide-open countryside and cramped-but-desirable society in 19th Century England. He captures the rusticity and cluttered streets of a bustling London with moody cinematography from John Mathieson, rich with longing glances at tall grass waving in the countryside breeze (triggering memories of the photographer's work in Gladiator) and the dark corners of lavish, echoic apartments well out of Pip's depth. I found myself more emotionally absorbed in the progression of the lyrical images -- a young Pip cleaning the soot from his parents' graves, iron jail cells dangling above a road, the mirth generated by a blacksmith's forge, a wealthy club of men drunkenly destroying glasses in a fireplace -- than the way Newell directs Dickens' tetual drama itself, most of which appear in the early stages of the protagonist's life.
It's doubtful that we'll ever reach a point where Pip's journey won't apply to contemporary culture in one form or another, even as the face of wealth change with passing years. One Day author/screenwriter David Nicholls suitably underscores the timeless themes of Dickens' book in his script: manufactured social stature, the appreciation of those who do without, and the elevated importance that wealth brings to undeserving individuals. It's a dutiful and reverent adaptation that hits the right notes throughout Pip's fond-yet-disposable treatment by the Havishams as a boy and his assimilation into aristocratic culture at an older age, yet with that closeness to the source material also comes the staleness of a lack of much updating. Comparisons to David Lean's masterful adaptation, a good 60+ years this film's senior, are to be expected given its dedication to faithfulness, leaving Newell's film in a state of needing to justify its reason for being. And it never really does so, leaving very few distinctive fingerprints while exploring Pip's melancholy fixation on Estella and his morphing personality in the presence of prosperity.
Jeremy Irvine, of War Horse notoriety, is adequate enough as Pip, his melancholy glances and flickers of passion often resembling how a young Ethan Hawke might look in a textbook production of Great Expectations (instead of Cuaron's more divergent take on the character). There are flashes where his grief over Estella, his fury with other wealthy gentlemen, and his frustration with his elder benefactors capably embody the character's increasing world-weary attitude, while his not-quite-paternal bond with Jason Flemyng's Joe offers some of the film's strongest emotional responses. His chemistry with Holliday Grainger, a veteran of several of the costume dramas mentioned earlier, leaves plenty to be desired, though: a degree of distance between Pip and Estella is to be expected, but they can't pull off the internal conflict brewing between them over Estella's complex attraction to Pip and the expectations Miss Havesham has of her. Helena Bonham Carter shows restraint in the manic, manipulative affection of that batty spinster perpetually in her wedding dress, the actress' idiosyncratic talent giving the character a subtle edge with her gravelly somber voice and traveling eyes.
Newell's Great Expectations progresses in a suitably watchable fashion throughout most of its runtime, but it really gets rusty in the joints within a slipshod and rambling final act, arguably the text's most important in underscoring themes and the characters' clandestine motivations. Dickens' text appears over-dramatic when filtered through this series of flashbacks that reveal the truths kept from Pip, a collage of dated, visually-distorted images -- of death, courtrooms, and tweaked glimpses at Pip's past -- that try a bit too hard to convey disorientation in an impressionable Pip's mind against the otherwise attractively-composed film. It's one of only a few distinctive fingerprints left by the director as his take on the classic resolves its climactic blend of tragic and bittersweet tones; however, it's also not enough to color the relative strengths that precede it, culminating in an straight adaptation that proves that modernization of classics isn't necessary ... but it's crucial to hammer those familiar elements in a fresh way.
Video and Audio:
Great Expectations' cinematography captures the rustic grit and upscale urbanity of mid-1800s England on Arri Alexa cameras, presented by Fox Home Entertainment in this 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC Blu-ray that proficiently handles the photography's complex black levels and digital presence. The coarse textures of weathered walls of the countryside homes, against gravestones, and in men's wiry beards are surprisingly sharp, while smoother textiles in bed linens and women's clothing are sleek and extremely responsive to light. Darker sequences have to contend with digital grain, though, which occasionally obscures finer details, while deeper black levels occasionally swallow up details (though others, namely warmer-lit ones around Joe's forge, look tremendous). Outdoor sequences, especially those in the countryside, make up for those stumbles: dense tree branches, scaffolding against homes, and pebbles on a beach preserve their details, skin tones are robust yet mindful of the environment, and vivid purples of garments and dull reds of blood achieve a nice level of pop. It's a great-looking film that's been given a strong treatment in HD.
The same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, a resonating affair with only a few missteps. The expansive atmosphere of the countryside and the close-quartered bustle of London makes ample use of the surround channels to enhance the dimension, though the bulk of harder sound effects -- galloping horses, butcher's blades, the crash of glasses in a fireplace, the pop of a cannon -- hit from the front channels. Great Expectations' score, of course, dominates the rear channel activity, usually taking the lead and allowing ambient sound effects to emerge in small doses. Verbal delivery is mostly clean as a whistle and employs a broad range of bass levels, though there are a few points where thicker accents succumb to a lack of higher-end clarity. No distortion could be heard across the film, though, and faint sound effects like footsteps on hardwood floors appropriately react to the sound design. English SDH and Spanish subs are available with the sole English language option.
Aside from a Trailer (2:29, 16x9 HD), a brief glimpse at the Premiere of Great Expectations (3:37, 16x9 HD) that features quick clips of interviews with director Mike Newell and his cast/producers.
Those familiar with other productions of Charles Dickens' literary classic -- both innovative and traditional, large screen and small -- will want to lower their expectations for Mike Newell's dedicated but humdrum adaptation. It hits the right beats of Pip's journey into bequeathed wealth, gentlemanly posturing, and his eternal infatuation with a woman designed to be out of his league, but it doesn't hit them hard enough to resonate. Visually, it's appealing, and there are flickers of strong performance value, but ultimately its evocative scope feels too slight and its grip on the source material a little too tight to say anything new. Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, which will make it a pleasing Rental. I'd sooner reach again for David Lean's exquisite telling, though, or Alfonso Cuaron's uniquely divergent version.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site