Release Date: March 7, 2013
Great Expectations is one of the finest coming of age stories ever written, making it to the big screen seven times since 1917. This latest version, helmed by Harry Potter’s Mike Newell, makes much of the sinful choices that can steer an entire life off course.
Charles Dickens originally published Great Expectations as a serial in his weekly periodical All The Year Round. The epic story traces the life of an orphan boy named Pip who is living a peasant’s existence in his sister’s home. He appears set to become the apprentice of her blacksmith husband, the kindly Joe. However trips to decadent Satis House plant seeds of discontent in his heart. The eccentric Miss Havisham engages him to play with her adopted daughter Estella. Pip falls in love but Havisham is training her ward to break hearts, not fill them. When a lawyer arrives at Pip’s home to announce a mysterious benefactor is determined to make him a gentleman, our hero sees his chance to finally have everything he wants. He throws over the salt-of-the-earth Joe in favour of the class that can take him in reach of Estella. He begins a life of ‘great expectations’ – but sadly, that’s all they end up becoming. By the end of the film Pip has learned that dreams are not always delivered on and we can come to sincerely regret the most ‘sensible’ decisions we make.
Much of the Great Expectations’ appeal rests on its perfect casting. Pip is played by War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine, and is childhood scenes by his little brother Toby. The ghoulish Miss Havisham, forever garbed in the wedding dress she was jilted in, was a role written for Helena Bonham Carter, and her beautifully cruel Estella is equally matched to Holiday Grainger. Robbie Coltrane and Ralph Fiennes round out the cast as Mr Jaggers and Magwitch, mean and malevolent characters who mold Pip’s life. But the brightest star is Dickens’ moral.
Newell’s version strives to faithfully deliver Dickens’ warning that good blessings can make bad gods. Pip’s love for Estella is pure, but the director says the steps he takes to attain her ends up twisting his character. “He’s treacherous and he’s callous and he’s cold and he does terrible things to the people who love him the most,” Newell explains. “And he constantly longs for the people who love him least.” The tragedy at the heart of the film is Pip’s mostly unrequited love for Estella, and the damage that desire does to the hero’s life:
Estella: You must know that I have no heart.
Pip: I don’t believe it. How can there be beauty without a heart?
Estella: I’ve been made that way.
But the truth is Estella is as culpable for her choices as Pip. Taking the wrong path, and refusing to take the right one are equally bad. Though many adults shamefully manipulated these lovers, Pip and Estelle remain responsible for their active and passive decisions, and this is one of the conclusions Dickens writes for his hero:
“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”
Conclusions formed over a lifetime are a hard thing to cram into a two-hour film and there’s no doubt that Great Expectations sometimes struggles for coherence. However the dangers of ambition and a conscience neglected are clear enough. Dickens was more a moralist than a Christian preacher, but Newell has revived for a new generation the author’s original caution to consider where our choices will take us.
“PAUSE YOU WHO READ THIS, AND THINK FOR A MOMENT OF THE LONG CHAIN OF IRON OR GOLD, OF THORNS OR FLOWERS, THAT WOULD NEVER HAVE BOUND YOU, BUT FOR THE FORMATION OF THE FIRST LINK ON ONE MEMORABLE DAY.” CONFIDENTIAL