Friday, April 4, 2014

The Latest Great Expectations

Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch in Mike Newell's Great Expectations

It would never have occurred to me to cast Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, but he’s superb in The Invisible Woman,which he also directed. And you can scarcely recognize him in the opening scenes of the latest version of Great Expectations (2012) where he plays the convict Abel Magwitch, who alters the life of the protagonist, Pip, bankrolling his ascension to the life of a London gentleman in payment for the boy’s kindness to him during his attempted escape. Fiennes’s performance is small-scale – as readers of the novel know, Magwitch drops out of the story early on, not to return until the final act – but he’s as good as Finlay Currie in the classic David Lean film from 1946 or Robert De Niro in the underappreciated Alfonso Cuarón remake from 1998, which updates the story to contemporary Florida and Manhattan. David Nicholls, the screenwriter (he wrote When Did You Last See Your Father?,which I liked, and One Day, which I didn’t), and Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), the director, focus the first part of the movie on the mistreatment of Pip (Toby Irvine) at the hands of most of the adults in his life.

That list includes his sister, the hysterical, strap-wielding Mrs. Joe Gargery (Sally Hawkins); her friend Mr. Pumblechook (David Walliams) and Mrs. Joe’s other dinner guests, who are high-handed and insulting to him, insisting that he’s ungrateful for and unworthy of her generosity in raising him after the deaths of their parents; Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), who uses him as a pawn for her ward Estella (Helena Barlow), whom she’s bringing up to carry out her own revenge on the male sex because she was jilted at the altar. And it includes even Magwitch, who scares Pip half to death when the boy comes across him in the graveyard where he’s visiting his parents’ graves and then manipulates him – as surely as Miss Havisham manipulates Estella – by transforming him into the gent that Magwitch himself, exiled for life to the Australian colonies, never can become. The helplessness of children was, of course, a favorite theme of Dickens’s books, but it isn’t the first one you think of when you consider Great Expectations. (Roman Polanski underscored it in his 2005 film of Oliver Twist.) Still, there’s more than enough material in the book to justify putting it in the foreground. “You will go wrong, not through any fault of mine,” the inscrutable lawyer Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), hired by Pip’s anonymous benefactor to dispense cash for his living expenses, warns the boy when he moves to London, though in fact what happens to Pip – not so much his predictable profligacy as his metamorphosis into a snob embarrassed by his rural proletarian roots – is precisely the fault of those who plucked him from the provinces and set him up in the city as a young gentleman of means. “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey,” Estella remarks lightly when, on Havisham’s orders, he meets her coach in London and acts as her escort. Pip and Estella win the lottery, in a sense, when, against the odds given to them at birth, they’re awarded the means to lead comfortable lives. But they’re slaves to the whims of the adults who are responsible for their fortunes, and their characters suffer as a result of the selfishness of those adults.

This first section of Newell’s picture, which showcases the lives of the children, is nicely done, but when they grow into young adults the movie loses ground quickly. Newell has made a point of casting Irvine’s older brother Jeremy as the grown-up Pip and casting sisters, Bebe and Jessie Cave, as the younger and older versions of Biddy, who loves Pip but winds up marrying his brother-in-law and defender Joe the blacksmith (Jason Flemyng). And Holliday Grainger, as the older Estella, matches up well with Helena Barlow. The trouble is that the kids are much more interesting than their older counterparts – especially Toby Irvine, who also has a beautiful face for the camera. Grainger is lovely to look at and she isn’t bad, but Jeremy Irvine, with his wild long hair, looks like a fashion model, and he doesn’t prepare us for the shift in Pip’s personality, who turns into a jerk overnight. As Estella’s repugnant swain, Bentley Drummle, whom she has the misfortune of marrying, Ben Lloyd-Hughes is done up as if for the ensemble of Cats.Olly Alexander is both funny and sweet as Jeff Goldblum’s teenage son in the new Le Week-end, but he seems to be playing Pip’s London flatmate and best friend Herbert Pocket as if he were gay, which makes Herbert’s relationship with Clara (Sophie Rundle) a little perplexing.

Toby Irvine and Helena Bonham Carter (Photo: Johan Persson)
All of Nicholls’s amendments to the narrative come in the second half, and they mostly seem ill-advised to me – like the implication that Estella is secretly in love with Pip but can’t act on her feelings (rather than that Miss Havisham raises her to have no gentle feelings of any kind, just as, by other means, the schoolmaster Gradgrind raises his daughter Louisa to be incapable of love in Dickens’s Hard Times). It isn’t necessary for Miss Havisham to tell Pip that she wishes she’d loved Estella like a daughter instead of treating her like an instrument of revenge, and it’s confusing for Pip to tell Magwitch at the end of the convict’s life, “I wish I’d been more deserving of your love.” Surely that isn’t the point, though it’s important that Pip, whose rejection of kind-hearted Joe is the key sign of the deterioration of his character, restore the sweetness and loyalty he’s lost by putting himself in danger in a second attempt to save Magwitch. Havisham’s death by fire is more graphic than necessary, and Newell’s other visual flourishes don’t work either – not the flashbacks, not the slow-mo images of the child Estella cavorting in the garden, which are meant to convey Pip’s romantic feelings for her.

Still, the movie is well shot (by John Mathiesen) and scored (by Richard Hartley), and it contains a number of strong performances. Sally Hawkins’s portrayal of Mrs. Joe captures the Dickensian style – which isn’t surprising when you recall that she’s a Mike Leigh actor, and Leigh is the closest equivalent to Dickens among today’s filmmakers. Though much more could be done with Robbie Coltrane, he’s ideally cast as Jaggers, as is Ewen Bremner as Jaggers’s clerk, Wemmick. David Walliams is a notable Pumblechook. For some reason all the comedy has been air-lifted out of the role of Joe Gargery, which doesn’t do Jason Flemyng much service in the early scenes; if you know the Lean version, you may think back longingly on the peerless Bernard Miles. (Chris Cooper wasn’t especially funny in the Cuarón, but he had an expansiveness that made his embarrassing vulgarity at Ethan Hawke’s New York gallery opening, coupled with his awareness that he’s a fish out of water, devastatingly painful.) But Flemyng comes through in the second half and becomes quite touching.

One change imposed on the material that does work is Havisham’s shock and dismay at learning that Estella is engaged to marry Drummle and thus doomed to marital misery. (Dickens’s Havisham doesn’t consider Estella’s unhappiness – or indeed anyone’s but her own, until Pip throws his own in her face moments before her sudden and ignominious death.) But that may be because everything Helena Bonham Carter does with the part of Havisham is brilliant. She approaches the celebrated lines so inventively and with so much wit that at first you hear them as if they were brand-new and only after she’s spoken them do they spark your memory. For instance, when Havisham urges Pip, on his first visit to her mansion, to play cards with Estella and he tells her that the only game he knows is Beggar My Neighbor, the way Carter insists, “Well? Beggar him!” has a mocking, self-amused quality; it reminds us both that she’s aware that Estella is stooping by playing with a poor boy from the village and that what she wants from her ward is to make of him a beggar for her love. These meanings may occur to you when you look at Dickens’s text but Carter pulls them into her reading. As Carter plays the half-mad old woman, her obsession with her own heartbreak, though it’s creepy and sometimes cruel, is like an addiction that she falls into like an opium eater. And she makes you feel that, despite her single-mindedness, she cherishes some affection for Pip. I never thought I’d find a Havisham I liked even more than Martita Hunt in the Lean film, but Carter is amazing. It’s a shame that this Great Expectations had so limited a release; in Boston, it opened in a single suburban theatre for a week and wasn’t screened for the press. Helena Bonham Carter was my choice for best supporting actress of 2013.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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