There’s a reason the book “Great Expectations” has inspired at least two dozen films, plays, television shows and literary spinoffs, ranging from David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1946 film — the gold standard — to a 2000 episode of “South Park.”
Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel is a rip-roaring yarn, with such great, indelible characters and jaw-dropping dramatic twists that it can survive even contortions on the order of Alfonso Cuarón’s strange yet strangely undisastrous 1998 modernization, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.
For fans of the original story, narrated by a common English lad who is elevated to the rank of gentlemen by a mysterious benefactor, there’s pleasure to be had in meeting, once again, such familiar minor characters as the beloved Aged P or the opportunistic Mr. Pumblechook. As with “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” almost any version of the tale can’t help but start out ahead of the game, simply by virtue of its dramatis personae.
It goes without saying that the latest adaptation, stylishly directed by Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) and smartly written by David Nicholls (“Starter for 10”), has the good sense not to mess too much with the source material. It’s a welcome and faithful addition to the canon, despite some tweaks (such as the absence of the third-tier villain Dolge Orlick, if you care.)
It also helps that the new version is thrillingly told, compellingly acted and beautifully shot.
For those coming into this fresh, “Great Expectations” is the tale of Pip, an orphan who lives in near squalor with his abusive older sister (Sally Hawkins) and her gently avuncular blacksmith husband (Jason Flemyng). In a bit of brilliant casting, Pip is first played, as a boy, by Toby Irvine, and later, as a young man, by that actor’s older brother, Jeremy Irvine. Not only is the resemblance striking between these two young Brits, but each can really act.
After an opening scene in which young Pip meets, and shows kindness to, the violent escaped convict Magwich (Ralph Fiennes) — a man who will figure prominently later — the film briskly goes about establishing the other central relationships in Pip’s life. First, there’s his protege relationship with the eccentric Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), a wealthy spinster who takes Pip under her wing. Next comes Pip’s friendship with Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella (Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger). Bonham Carter is especially delightful as the deranged Havisham, a role that has attracted actresses as diverse as Jean Simmons, Anne Bancroft and Gillian Anderson.
Pip falls immediately and permanently in love with Estella, though she doesn’t reciprocate. In fact, he continues to carry a torch for her even after inheriting enough money to allow him to move to London, where he adopts a life of leisure and could presumably have any woman he wants.
On the most basic level, Pip’s unrequited pining for the ice-cold Estella forms the spine of this story. Yet it’s a spine made crooked by the fact that Havisham is really the one pulling Estella’s strings, using her daughter to break Pip’s heart as revenge for the older woman’s own romantic betrayal, details of which only slowly reveal themselves, with delicious drama. Along the way there also are other, even more unspeakable secrets.
Part love story, part mystery, “Great Expectations” is a literary masterpiece because it’s about so much more than just Pip and Estella. Although the fate of their relationship drives the saga, some of the other ideas that Dickens packed into the book include the true meaning of nobility, along with ruminations on class, gratitude, regret, revenge, destiny, freedom, atonement and guilt.
Like any work inspired by Dickens, the new film rides on the backs of its large and colorful cast of characters, brought to life by some of England’s finest actors. What they’re carrying is heavy, and not just because it’s a classic.
Is this version of “Great Expectations” indispensable? Maybe not. But it’s lovely to see the sensitivity and respect with which Newell and Nicholls attempt to renew not just Dickens’s well-worn protagonists, but also his equally enduring themes.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence and cruelty. 128 minutes.