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A Conversational Review: Great Expectations 2012, dir. Mike Newell

2013 January 10
by lucinda matthews-jones

by Emma Curry (Birckbeck, University of London) and Beatrice Bazell (Birckbeck, University of London)


Emma Curry (EC): Arriving less than a year after the BBC’s highly-acclaimed Christmas TV adaptation of Great Expectations was always going to be a problem for Mike Newell’s new version of Dickens’s masterpiece, starring Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Jeremy Irvine as Pip. Adaptations don’t usually need to justify themselves, but in much of the press surrounding this film it seemed the writer, actors and director felt they had to do just that, emphasising how innovative or unique this production would be in order to distinguish it from its very close predecessor. I was surprised, then, upon watching it, to find how relatively conservative and reverent it was in its approach to the source material. Nicholls is evidently a real fan of the book, and there are some fabulously detailed attentions to Dickens’s language (particularly, for example, in the rapid, dramatic opening scene, when the camera inverts to reflect Pip’s perspective of the church going ‘head over heels’ before him). However, in focusing so closely on clearly cherished details, the story as a whole, shaped into just two hours of film, suffered. Many of the segments in London felt rushed, and there was a huge chunk at the end that mostly consisted of explanatory dialogue.

Beatrice Bazell (BB): What saddened me most was the project’s consistent misreading of characters that we supposedly know and love. If you’re a fan of the book then why not follow Dickens’ instincts? After all, this is widely held to be one of his most psychologically acute works. I’m afraid I thought this tendency was worsened by the fact that almost every actor (with the honourable exception of Jason Flemyng as Joe Gargery) was slightly miscast. All the headliners got stuck in “Dickens” clichés which have very little to do with actually getting the story told. The moments which, for me at least, truly recalled the power of the novel were the set pieces: the hunt for the convicts on the marshes, the “revelation” scene, the amazing final action sequence involving a paddle steamer. I was absolutely gripped by those moments, and all the other sillinesses of the film just fell away.

EC: I think it’s always interesting as well to see which characters are chosen to be included: one person’s essential plot pivot is another’s supplementary fluff. In the Christmas BBC adaptation we had Orlick but no Biddy; here, vice versa. Additionally, there was much more emphasis on Pip’s gentlemen’s club in London, given a Bullingdon-style makeover with smashing glasses and dance-floor marauding. I’m disappointed that I’m still yet to see a production that includes Trabb’s boy though!

BB: By the time we reached “Finch’s”, the establishment for Victorian gentlemen, I thought I was inured to the 1980s television adaptation tropes: daft costumes, distracting music, and acting so self-conscious and hammy it could best a packet of pork scratchings. But no, Bentley Drummle is now the head of a set of pouting New Romantics, instead of the epitome of the abusive excesses which privilege, power and status enable. But I have to say that I thought that the focus on Molly, beautifully played by Tamzin Outhwaite, moving through these scenes like a knife through butter, was one of the film’s strengths. After all, Molly is the heart of this whole story; she’s how all the threads connect together, the only real mother in the entire work.

EC: It was great to see such a strong emphasis on her: in ruthlessly chopping supporting characters to streamline the narrative, Molly’s role quite often becomes reduced to a dark look here and there in the background. I did find the loss of Orlick problematic however: his physical and psychological shadowing of Pip is, for me, a key element of Pip’s ambivalence towards his home on the marshes, and his removal impeded this trajectory. I think this is symptomatic of my feelings towards the film as a whole: ultimately, the reading of the novel it presented was rather inconsistent. At times it slavishly held a magnifying glass to the text, transcribing dialogue and camera angles direct from Dickens’s words, yet at others it departed wildly, rushing through key scenes and seemingly unnecessarily rewriting characters (step forward Bentley Drummle!). Unfortunately, as a whole I felt it didn’t give me anything new to think about in the original. See it instead for the lovingly-rendered small details: the Aged P firing the cannon in Walworth, Pip nervously landing in the ‘filth and fat and blood and foam’ of Smithfield Market, and the young Herbert Pocket’s hilarious combat warm-up.

BB: So, with our Bicentenary hats on, does this mean that Dickens’ actual work has less value to us than all the accessories which we get to label ‘Dickensian’? Or that Dickens would have made a great film director? I agree with you about the lack of  Orlick, and the problem of Drummle really has captured our attention as critics, but we have just endured a year whose popular literary – and cultural – controversies featured ‘sexy’ stories of controlling abuser and passive victim, exploited for viewing entertainment, or for sensationalised disapproval. (I suppose my disdain for the likes of Edward Grey, Edward Cullen and Bentley Drummle isn’t unusual, but that the latter is definitely the best written of the three.) No, the unforgivable thing about this version to my mind is that Estella is never portrayed as anything more than the beautiful gems with which she is constantly loaded. She might protest, but the film lingers much more over her beauty than her soul. When Dickens is a better feminist, not to say psychologist, than his re-tellings can portray, it’s time to go back to the drawing-board.

Biographies:

Emma Curry is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, where she is researching Dickens’s representations of bodies, body parts and fashion accessories. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaLCurry

Beatrice Bazell is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, working on mid-Victorian representations of sexuality in literature, photography and art. You can follow her on Twitter: @beatricebazell

2 Responses leave one →
  1. January 10, 2013

    An interesting review! I found that this felt structurally unbalanced, with an over-long first section in the marshes, in comparison to which the city narrative felt rushed and some odd cuts had been made to the London scenes. In part this is a challenge posed by the text, as the marshes do take up a whole 1/3rd of the novel, but what works structurally in the novel translates less well when given relative screen-time. I felt the structural deficiency most obvious in Magwitch’s narrative- in the novel, the necessity of his removal from England becomes a real pressing question in that last volume, but here the cuts that were made meant that the issue of getting Magwitch away came as a sudden final wrapping-up, and lacked any sense of urgency or importance as a result. A shame, as I otherwise enjoyed Fiennes’ Magwitch.

    It was an interesting choice to go with the subdued, ambivalent ending of Dickens’s revised version (albeit with the change of location) – what did you both think of that? And do you think it’s possible to have a successful portrayal of Estella, given the way in which she’s written in the text?

  2. January 15, 2013

    I completely agree, Charlotte, regarding the pacing of the story. From some covert watch-checking, I noticed we’d spent just over 45 minutes of the film on the first volume of the book – too much when you’ve only got two hours to get through the whole story. And most definitely too much when you’re planning to waste a good 10 minutes watching the ‘Finches’ throw wineglasses around! It was such a shame to lose the book’s gradual unveiling of key plot details too (Pip’s benefactor; the identity of Estella’s parents) – in the book I think the gradual reveal lessens the force of Dickens’s typical massive plot coincidences (!), but putting them all one after the other in that 15-minute chunk towards the end rather painfully drew attention to them.

    I liked the use of the revised ending, although I didn’t really understand why the location had been altered. The image of Pip and Estella leaving the grounds of Satis House together I think perfectly communicates that acknowledgement of past suffering and prospect of a happier (or at least less damaged) future, and the house-move somewhat diminished that.

    Regarding Estella, I think it is, as you suggest, just incredibly difficult to put her on screen. Without narration, the film is never going to be as much from Pip’s perspective as the novel, and whilst Estella is obviously ever-present in his thoughts, I suppose she isn’t really in that many scenes, leaving little dialogue for the screenwriter and actress to play with. I actually found last Christmas’s BBC serial a more successful portrayal of her though: I felt it was more effective at emphasising her conflicted feelings towards Pip and, crucially, her vulnerability; especially in those later scenes where she literally wears (in bruises) the damage Drummle has inflicted upon her.

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