Thursday, September 13, 2012

TIFF 2012: Great Expectations

Ms. Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in her bridal finery

Great Expectations (U.K., 2012) directed by Mike Newell, 128 minutes
Thursday, September 13, 2012, TIFF Lightbox 1, 9.45a.m.

Once my husband R complained that Dickens was overly long, overly elaborate, too tedious to read. I pointed out that he was paid by the word for his efforts. “Yeah, and it shows ...” he remarked acidly. He may have a point there. 

It looks like my solid Catholic school education has come to naught as I couldn’t remember a single blasted passage of this book except for the fact that Miss Havisham was forsaken at the altar. Need we re-hash the plot of this high school favourite? I think not. For those that require a refresher please read here

Why pursue a remake of the classic? I can’t say speak for the director Mike Newell, best known for his rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral (still a favourite of mine after all these years - I know, I know, but I like it) but I know that certain classic stories stay with you forever. This might be one of those for him. 

The dishy Jeremy Irvine
Jeremy Irvine, as the adult Philip Pirrip nicknamed Pip, has that open, innocent face that I imagine all of Dickens’ heroes should possess – full of wonder, by turns joyful then wounded by what the real world brings to them. He is handsome, good-hearted and honest and Irvine’s face communicates all that and more. 

Most of the characters look like grotesques with overly fussy clothing and layers that seems to emphasize the claustrophobia of life in Dickensian England. London, as pictured here, is ugly and peopled with rude, insentient filthy beings who barge by the astonished Pip as he seeks to make his way as a newcomer. I loved that the spoiled rich Finches of the gentleman’s club that Pip joins in London resemble New Wave punks of the 1980s with their foppish curly hair, billowing shirts and elaborate waistcoats.  

I relished the grimy, nasty version of Victorian life that Newell presents … highlighting the ugly treatment of convicts and the distaste for the poor of urban England. The low value placed on women and what they bring to marriage. The greed and snobbishness that pervades the unbearable upper classes. 

Eventually the city gradually rubs off on Pip and he too becomes callous and cold, judgmental of his sister’s husband Joe the blacksmith (Jason Flemyng) and the people he left behind once he has received his annuity from his anonymous benefactor Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes). 

That grimy image is not restricted to the city of London. The county of Kent, where Pip is born, seems depressingly ugly and barren. The women are disheveled, cheap looking and yet be-ribboned in an unbecoming way; the men are grubby, shoddy and but also overdressed and fussy.

I was especially captivated by Miss Havisham (who else but Helen Bonham Carter?), the compelling horror of her ruined bridal dress and decaying mansion that once housed the sumptuous wedding feast until her groom betrayed her and broke her heart. She is by turns imperious and impossible, sentimental and emotionally vulnerable.

Ralph Fiennes is also compelling as the escaped convict whom comes to play such an important role in Pip’s journey. Estella, Miss Havisham's ward and the thought to be lost daughter of Magwitch, is played with icy precision by Holliday Grainger. 

The cast is near perfect. It almost prompts me to reread the book. Almost.

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