Opens Fri., Nov. 8 at Sundance, Meridian, and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes.
Charles Dickens’ 1860 novel of class-jumping seems to defy updating from its Victorian era. Alfonso Cuaron tried to kick Pip and Magwitch into modern New York with his 1998 adaptation; he was roundly booed for the bother. Now Mike Newell—like Cuaron a veteran of the Harry Potter series—has a go with the franchise, and he opts for a conservative approach, not deviating far from David Lean’s 1946 benchmark. It’s the same three-part arc: Pip’s poor, humble origins on the moors; his sudden transformation into a London gent (funded by a mysterious benefactor); and the shattering realization that wealth and beauty are not what they seem.
Parts I and III are the most compelling here. Orphaned young Pip (Toby Irvine) roams the bogs like a frightened marsh bird; the sand and sun are an idyll compared to later scenes in sooty London. There is love from Pip’s blacksmith brother-in-law Joe (Jason Flemyng), then terror at meeting long-locked convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), a fugitive made of mud and anger. In her cobwebbed mansion, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) is a more vague, ethereal creature; and her stratagems are less keenly felt than Magwitch’s. He deals with knives and mutton and revenge; she’s the aloof agent of romantic snares, with Estella (Holliday Grainger) her chief instrument of mischief.
Why isn’t this Great Expectations more vital? There are colorful supporting roles for England’s finest (Sally Hawkins, Robbie Coltrane, Ewen Bremner, etc.), but the grown Pip (War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine, brother of Toby) is a handsome bore. He and Estella have no heat, and Pip’s London dissolution with the Finch Club is a snooze. J.K. Rowling has never said as much, but Pip’s magical leap of station makes him a direct forebear of Harry Potter. Harry leaves his lowly suburb for a life of enchantment and danger, while Pip here finally grows disenchanted with gilded city life. That turn ought to be more crushing, like Magwitch’s final flight; yet when Pip goes back to visit the moors, we feel the sting of salt air and regret.