Monday, September 10, 2012

'Great Expectations' (2012) directed by Mike Newell

This is the second adaptation of 'Great Expectations' produced by the BBC within the space of a year.  The first, Sarah Phelp's lavish and well-received three part television adaptation was shown over Christmas 2011.  This version is to be released in the run up to Christmas 2012, and features a similarly star-studded cast of British acting stalwarts.

Newell plays it safe with the material, sticking with the early C19th setting, and aside from cutting a number of subplots for time, sticks pretty closely to Dickens' text.  His casting also throws ups few surprises.  Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham almost feels too obvious, and without wishing to detract from the excellent performances of much of this experienced cast, frankly, these feel like roles they could play in their sleep.  So why produce this now?  Why are people attracted to 'Great Expectations'?

Jeremy Irving as the adult Pip
'Great Expectations' is a story of class.  A tale of a young man thrust upwards to the top rung of polite society, and the effects this change has on him.  Examining class in the modern day feels very timely.  For the last 30-odd years, politicians have been drumming into us the notion that 'class is dead' or that "we are all middle class now".  Following the introduction of austerity following the financial crash of 2008, this notion has been exposed as a lie and increasingly the concept of class has gained currency in contemporary discourse.  When confronted by an aristocratic, public school educated and fantastically personally wealthy government telling us "we're all in this together" it's hard not to feel the line in the sand between "us" and "them" become ever more tangible.  This is exacerbated by those at the desperate end of the economic spectrum, who are dependant on government welfare to eke out an acceptable standard of living being demonised by press and politicians alike as 'scroungers'.

Is it any wonder that the work of Dickens has re-entered the spotlight in his centenary year?  We live in a culture where those that seek work can be compelled to sleep under a bridge in central London to provide unpaid security services to the elderly, stone-faced monarch as she floats down the drizzly river Thames in her fabulous golden barge?  Hogarth couldn't have sketched a neater satire.

Newell takes care to highlight the immense financial and social divide between the haves and have nots in Dickens' world.  The change in scenery between Pip's simple country home in the marshes and his new life in the city couldn't be greater.  Almost as soon as he is newly minted as a gentleman, Pip is enrolled in the 'Finches of the Grove', a men's club for young, fashionable men whose only desire seems to be to spend money extravagantly.  Newell does a great job of very quickly defining them as repellent, particularly in the utterly venal character of Bentley Drummle (Ben Lloyd-Hughes).  We watch them down their drinks and as one hurl their crystal glasses into the fireplace.  It's imagery and behaviour that seems directly reminiscent of David Cameron and Boris Johnson's violent and humiliating destruction of restaurants as part of the 'jaunts' of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford , and the Finches later arrogant behaviour at a dance cements the connection.  

Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham
Conversely, every time we cut back to Pip's simple country home in the marshes Newell takes care to frame a gently swinging gibbet next to the roadside.  A symbol of the constraints of this Victorian working class?  Class mobility for these rural characters is a fantasy.  Yet the working class characters are easily the most human and likeable people in the film.  In particular, Pip's brother-in-law, Joe Gargary (Joe Flemyng) is consistently painted as content with his lot and with a strong moral centre.  He seems to take a rugged pride in his blacksmithing, and Newell repeatedly frames his hammer striking glowing metal in closeup whenever we see him at work.  

Pip never completely fits into upper-class society, and the camera usually finds him brooding in the corner, only interacting with the wider mob when it concerns the love of his life, Estella Havisham.  He's a man caught between opposing worlds, of neither one nor the other.  One of the most effective scenes in this adaptation is when Joe has unexpectedly arrived to visit Pip,  who is by now firmly wrapped up the concept of himself as a gentleman.  Pip, clearly mortified at his unexpected presence nonetheless takes him out to a chop house for dinner.  While there he manages to comprehensively insult and belittle him with a snob's arrogance and lack of empathy.  He unsubtly and repeatedly instructs him in 'London etiquette' explaining that his nose should never touch the rim of a wine glass, and how to hold his knife and fork.  This transformation of Pip stands in sharp contrast to the relaxed young boy we saw at the start of the film, and also seems decidedly two-faced as just a few scenes before we were shown Pip's friend Herbert instructing Pip in table manners in much the same way.

What Newell wants us to see are the ways Pip is corrupted and debased by his fortune.  The more he fits into high-class society, the less we like him.  Those who are wealthy in 'Great Expectations' are consistently those with psychological or social maladjustments.  Miss Havisham lives in an opulent yet rotting manor, a dramatic externalisation of her internal misery.  Estella, tragically, cannot escape from what she has been brought up to be, a heartless destroyer of men.  Bentley Drummle, 'the richest young man in England' is cruel and abusive toward those he sees as below him (so basically everyone).  The more Pip becomes absorbed into this world, the more he becomes egotistical and corrupt.

Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch
To modern audiences this is catnip.  Much like Dickens' Victorian audience, notions of class mobility are steadily shrinking.  A generation of school-leavers look at the mountain of debt that faces them if they want further education and coupled with the employment prospects of recent graduates, they think "nuts to that".  There's an affluent class in society that has pulled the ladder up after themselves, and the divide between us and them is growing by the day.  Seeing them allegorically portrayed as a shower of miserable, unhappy bastards is quite soothing, as is the notion that those that do join them inevitably become similarly corrupted.

Pip's own class consciousness only genuinely matures when he realises the nature of his benefactor: the violent criminal Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes).  The fact that he, of all people is the source of all of his airs and graces seems to shock some sense into him, and sets in motion some growth of conscience in Pip.  There is a great scene here when Pip offers Magwitch some money to try and get him to leave.  The money is unceremoniously burnt by Magwitch, a great bit of visual imagery which sums up much of his philosophy in a simple gesture.  Pip does eventually learn to care about Magwitch's fate, putting his own life at considerable risk in an effort to save him, and remaining close to him until his death, even knowing that he will no longer receive any of his money.

Newell has made a film that clearly shows us the problems and effects of class stratification and the corrupting influence of money and power upon people.  Pip never quite reaches the logical end of his moral lesson.  Admittedly he gains a strong moral centre, but there is no real 'eureka' moment where he puts it all together and realises he can apply his experiences with class in a wider social context. 

An examination of class politics like this cannot help but feel relevant to modern audiences.  This portrayal of a strongly stratified class-based society, where the doors are  closed to those without either breeding or fantastic luck should strike us as something to be condemned, and this film underlines faults in our disturbingly similar modern society.

In terms of the adaptations merits as a film, it succeeds more than it fails, although there are some notable missteps along the way.  Pip is played as a boy and adult by brothers Toby and Jeremy Irvine respectively, but it is Toby Irvine's performance of the young Pip that anchors the role.  When we skip forward in time it's a shock to see the chiseled, male model looks of his older brother Jeremy.  In a Dickensian world populated by grotesques he stands out as being too pretty, as if he has stepped off the front of a Mills & Boon romance.  Other characters seem to emerge organically from the muddy world that Newell creates, but Irvine seems set apart from his surroundings and is overly detached.  

Pip and Estella (Holliday Grainger)
This is also a problem with Holliday Grainger's Estella.  Estella is a character who repeatedly explains that she has no heart, and therefore does not feel emotion.  I've always been of the opinion that the more a person professes something about themselves, the more suspicious you should be of them.  But Grainger's Estella genuinely seems to be a quasi-robotic creature.  When she explains that she has no heart to Pip, I was bizarrely reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II trying to learn how to emote.  The essential tragedy of the character has always been not that she can't feel emotion, but that she is trapped in the pretence that she can't.  But Grainger plays her like Miss Havisham has literally succeeded in constructing a wind-up doll to pour her loathing of men into. Of all the adaptations I've seen of Great Expectations, this is the least loveable Estella, and it makes Pip's continued pursual of her a bit strange.  At no point do we see a real glimpse of the woman that could be freed from this icy carapace, and it is seeing this crack in the facade that should drive Pip in his passion.

Conversely, Olly Alexander's Herbert Pocket is a joy to watch.  He hovers and dances around the more reserved Pip character, and Alexander conveys his essential good-heartedness and enthusiasm extremely well.  He brightens up any scene he's in, and is almost impossible to dislike.  The film's stable of British character actors: Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Ewen Bremner, Jason Flemyng and Helena Bonham-Carter all acquit themselves extremely well, but then you'd expect such a storied and experienced group of British actors to take to a Dickens adaptation like a duck to water.  I did particularly enjoy Robbie Coltrane though, who physically seems more appropriate than most to be an inhabitant of Dickensian London.

One aspect I enjoyed was Newell's portrayal of early C19th London.  As Pip arrives, men are shovelling crates of guts around the muddy city, jamming pig's heads onto spikes and emptying buckets of shit into the mud.  It's a great introduction to a filthy and oppressive city.  We're shocked in much the same way as Pip is having gotten used to the open, calm spaces of the Kentish marsh in the first act.  This initial thrill of excitment disappates a bit as the camera moves about, and this small slice of London is revealed to be a fairly confined set.  The later London scenes are shot on the much cleaner and more sanitary looking streets around the Temple, which detracts a bit from Newell's initial chaotic portrayal of London life.

The interior set design is of excellent quality.  I particularly enjoyed the fossilised nature of Miss Havisham's wedding banquet, which is captured in disgusting detail.  Later in the film, when Pip moves into his fancy new gentleman's apartment we can drink in the opulence of his surroundings.  I'm guessing some of this was shot on location in period buildings, but we never think of these surroundings as looking 'old'.  They seem casually lived in, especially the headquarters of the Finches.

I also enjoyed the costuming, which more than most of the other production design, serves to heighten the reality of the film.  This is a film where outward appearance is important, and every character, low or high status is neatly stylised.  All of Estelle's dresses are stunningly conceived, especially the one with a collar of purple feathers that emphasise her untrustworthy and flighty qualities.  There is also a particularly amazing and extravagant dressing-gown that Pip wears, which in brilliant aquamarine jumps out of the film's dowdy and desaturated colour scheme and makes him appear both dashing and, appropriately for his state of mind, faintly peacock-like.

Despite Newell's experience there are a few confusingly edited sequences, particularly in the climactic boat sequence where in the darkness it becomes a little difficult to work out the geography of the scene.  There's two boats and a steamship in semi-darkness on the water, and it's a little difficult to work out which boat is going under, or what's happened to key characters here.  Another slightly bizarre decision is that the flashback expository sequences stretched out and distorted.  It serves its purpose of distinguishing them from the rest of the film, but they look like the film is being played in the wrong aspect ratio.  Faces are stretched horizontally, with the result that character's heads look like rugby balls.  If the sequences were short this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but in the closing sequences there is maybe 15 minutes of flashback exposition, and this effect becomes quite tiring.

'Great Expectations' has much to say about contemporary society.  However, I'm not sure if this mostly enjoyable adaptation, which comes hot on the heels of the 2011 BBC version, was entirely necessary.  It's a film with some outstanding elements and a few great performances, but fumbles the ball in a few too many crucial areas, namely the casting of Pip and Estella.  A qualified success, but not worth going out of your way for.

'Great Expectations' is on general release from November 30, 2012

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