Review - Great Expectations is in cinemas from today

30th November 2012 at 00:00

Be still, my beating heart. Oh, it is

It is hard to imagine that anyone who went to school at any point during key stage 3 might not know the plot of Great Expectations. Orphan Pip helps an escaped convict whom he encounters on the Kentish marshes. He is then invited by Miss Havisham, literature's creepiest bride-to-be, to be a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella. Years later, Pip is sent to London to learn to be a gentleman. Here, he once again encounters Estella, whom Miss Havisham has taught to scorn all men.

The new film version of Dickens' novel, scripted by David "One Day" Nicholls and directed by Mike Newell, serves the plot well. Its version of Victorian London - juxtaposed brutally against Pip's native marshes - is bloody, smoky, smelly and overcrowded. Miss Havisham's home, by contrast, is all dust and filtered sunlight: the silence is almost tangible.

Helena Bonham Carter makes for a wonderfully loopy, gloriously ghoulish Miss Havisham. Imagine Bellatrix Lestrange, of Harry Potter fame, crossed with Baby Jane-era Bette Davis. Indeed, characterisation is the film's strength, as it is Dickens': Nicholls and Newell play up the messy, conflicted humanity of the people in Pip's world. Ralph Fiennes, as the convict Magwitch, for example, moves subtly and convincingly between shame, regret and savage pride.

And Olly Alexander, as Pip's roommate, Herbert Pocket, is simply adorable. I wanted to ruffle his hair almost every time he appeared on screen. The growing friendship between the two young men is multidimensional and profound.

It is a shame the same could not be said of Pip's relationship with Estella. I know that the point of Estella is that she cannot feel, but surely this alone cannot justify the unfortunate lack of emotion that actress Holliday Grainger brings to the role.

This might have been less of a problem were Grainger not surrounded by such high-calibre actors. When Pip declares his love to her, we see unequivocally the effect it has on Miss Havisham, along with the internal conflict this creates. Yet Estella's discovery of her own heart is played as though she has not yet reached "emotional register" in the users' manual.

The result is that the heart of the story has been excised as efficiently as Estella's. So go into the cinema with reasonable expectations, by all means. But do not expect more than occasional snatches of greatness.

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