‘Great Expectations’ review

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On paper, this sounds a dream: a new big-screen adaptation of one of Dickens’ strongest, most beloved stories, featuring a cast of British heavyweights.

Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch! Robbie Coltrane as Mr Jaggers! David Walliams and Sally Hawkins thrown into the mix! And to top it all off, Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham – surely the part she was born to play.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t pan out quite as hoped. A combination of David Nicholls’ uneven scripting and Mike ‘Four Weddings’ Newell’s scattershot direction render most scenes curiously lifeless, especially the all-important Miss Havisham scenes. Whereas she chopped up her co-stars and added heartfelt tragedy to Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, here she fails to come across as the simultaneously crazed and pathetic relic of a jilted bride. It doesn’t help that the flashback scenes explaining her fateful wedding day are filmed like a BBC TV drama, mistaking hyperbolic post-production for emotion.

Others fare better. Coltrane relishes his slimy lawyer Mr Jaggers, Holliday Grainger has a great time as the grown-up Estella, playing with the few witty lines in the script, and Ralph Fiennes steals the show as Magwitch, the one character allowed enough space to stretch.

As Pip, our protagonist, War Horse‘s Jeremy Irvine falls into the middle-of-the-road category. A rags-to-riches story such as this needs a hero we can root for. John Mills was perfectly loveable in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation, even when Pip took a downturn into snobbery. Irvine tries, but he just doesn’t elicit any sympathy and we therefore don’t care whether or not he learns to be a Good Man and get the girl.

In short, this new Expectations comes bearing the weight of a great many other adaptations before it. It may be unfair to compare it to David Lean’s masterful version, but when that prime example of elegant storytelling exists, why bother with anything less?

Released in UK cinemas on Friday 30 November 2012 by Lionsgate.