Movie review: 'Great Expectations' is beautiful conventional tale

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There've been so many film versions of Charles Dickens' 1861 novel that they start to bleed into one another and it's difficult to keep them apart. David Lean's 1946 production with John Mills, Valerie Hobson and a young Alec Guinness is still my favorite, simply for its honest, straightforward storytelling.

But, in 2011, TV's "Masterpiece Theater" released another British-made "Great Expectations" with a fine performance by Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. With Mills as the perfect Pip and Ms. Anderson as a soulful Havisham, I was content to leave cinema's efforts to tell Dickens' deceptively masterful story as is.

'Great Expectations'

Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Jeremy Irvine.

Rating: PG-13 for graphic scenes of the gross underbelly of Dickensian London.

Now British director Mike Newell is fielding an entry in the "Expectations" sweepstakes in a production that mixes the dark atmospherics of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" with the typically English eccentricities of the characters in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," two of his best-known films. Then there's the criminal element of "Donnie Brasco," so the project would seem to be right up one of those dank, stinking London alleys for Mr. Newell.

The result, though, might be better titled "Good Intentions." Dickens is a novelist of many layers who crafts a suspenseful plot that captures readers with its twists and clever coincidences while subtly criticizing the injustices and despair of Victorian Britain. He entertains while he attacks.

Mr. Newell seems caught between Dickens' multiple natures, so he gives bits and pieces of them. The relationship between Pip and Estella isn't straightforward romance, but a psychologically unpleasant one. Using the attractive pair of Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger deflects from Dickens' curious exploration of love, and while Ms. Grainger captures Estella's heartlessness, Mr. Irvine seems befuddled by it all.

Mr. Newell, though, can't miss with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers. As most know, Magwitch isn't around much, and Mr. Fiennes makes the most of his brief appearances including the harrowing escape attempt.

Ms. Carter is her expected quirky self, building a Miss Havisham spookily from her ever-tattered wedding gown and sunken red-rimmed eyes. It's a new take on this bizarre character -- and memorable.

Much credit goes to Mr. Coltrane's portrayal of the cynical lawyer whose guidance of Pip confirms his suspicions about the seduction of the moneyed life of a "gentleman." Jaggers is truly the center of the story, a role Mr. Coltrane fills amply, both in his performance and girth.

This latest "Great Expectations" is the most beautiful, green lush painterly images of the Kentish coast, the grim, offal-filled (no pun intended) cobblestones of lowlife London and the lamplit interiors of posh houses.

Richard Hartley's musical score complements, rather than assaults, the narrative, a pleasant polishing touch to a truly good and unchallenging reworking of a great novel.

Opens today at Phoenix Big Cinemas Chartiers Valley and North Versailles.


Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover occasionally reviews movies for the newspaper.

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