Besides its cast, a parade of Brit faces the likes of which we haven't seen since the last episode of Wizard Boy Has a Sad, the quality that most distinguishes Mike Newell's adaptation of the best-titled of all English novels is its healthy fullness. In the decades since David Lean's definitive film, one of those rare cases of genius adapting genius, Great Expectations has again and again been given something like a greatest-hits treatment. In dinner theaters, botched musicals and Alfonso Cuarón's daft Florida-swampland updating, this most carefully worked out of Dickens' stories has been reduced to its unforgettable highlights, the way sitcom characters in holiday episodes race through A Christmas Carol: criminal on the marsh, playtime at Miss Havisham's, the rotted-through wedding finery, the little girl whose heart is ice, “I say, it's grand to be a gentleman, mysterious benefactor!”
Those scenes are grand here, too, their drama still piercing, but Newell never hustles to them, or treats them as though they're the only things we're interested in. He subsumes them into the fuller story, emphasizing character and feeling, never getting caught up in that plummy puddings-and-corsets Christmastide pageantry that strangles so many takes on Dickens. In his grimly filthy London and surprisingly sunny seaside village, he finds the vital heart of most scenes and gives us fine portraits of Pip's blacksmith caretaker, Joe; of Joe's rampaging wife; of dual-selved law clerk Wemmick and his Aged Parent. Scenes with this lot are no less engaging than the set pieces. Robbie Coltrane plays Jaggers, that unknowable lawyer, as a manmade force of nature, the agent through whom the whims of the moneyed become lawful fact. Charlie Callaghan, as the pale young boy who engages Pip in fisticuffs on the grounds of Miss Havisham's, prances hysterically, and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as the louchest of London's gentlemen class is not just a fine minor villain; he's the perfect demonstration of the destructive pointlessness of Pip's fantasy of being a moneyed, idle fancy-pants.
Then there are the principals. It's dispiriting to think of an actress as young, gifted and gorgeous as Helen Bonham Carter in the role of Miss Havisham, that jilted grande dame mummified in her own bridal gown. But she and the filmmakers approach the character not as a brittle septuagenarian, but as a brilliant, cruel, scheming, still-alluring woman of means relishing her own theatrical decay—and the power such Grey Gardens madness gives her over the timid relatives in her orbit.
Ralph Fiennes is typically strong as Magwitch, the criminal who demands young Pip bring him “wittles.” The performance is full and alive, even when Fiennes is tasked with narrating many of those damnable third-act Dickensian coincidences. (One price we pay for Newell's story-honoring approach is we're not spared the bad stuff, including some of the book's many late complications.) Good as he is, Fiennes' work here feels like an appetizer for the feast to come: his thrilling turn as Dickens himself in December's excellent The Invisible Woman, which the actor also directed.
This go-round, Pip and Estella are most moving in their earliest scenes, when they're played by kids (Toby Irvine and Helena Barlow), and her plainspoken malignancy—”You're a coarse, laboring boy”—stings. Later, after both characters have undergone an offscreen process of hunkening/beautification, the performances remain sound but somewhat thin. That's no surprise, really, since Dickens' leads tend to be stiff, pure-hearted ciphers. Jeremy Irvine's Pip is at his most interesting when he's going wrong. In thrall to the gentleman lifestyle, he dresses down ol' Joe the blacksmith for the roughness of his manners—in this moment, Pip is a more polite version of the young Estella, seizing on class differences as a means of self-definition.
Holliday Grainger has more to work with as Estella because the character's coldness and distance are fascinating. As those wear down, though, and the story wends toward its impossible happy ending, Grainger is left with only her charm and rosy beauty to compel us—fortunately, that's plenty.
Newell's film doesn't supplant Lean's, of course. The yearning is more vague, the gloom less consummate. But it's the best since, rich in feeling and dark beauty, alive with the superior scenecraft, chatter and imagination of the most beloved of novelists. Lazy English teachers who park their students in front of this will be doing those kids a service.