Director Mike Newell takes a fairly traditional approach to Charles Dickens’ classic novel in this 2012 British adaptation of Great Expectations. It is a straight retelling of the original story made with lavish production values, featuring Helen Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as the big names above the marquee. There is a good reason not to mess with its story. Great Expectations has been adapted over and over again for the screen due to its timeless qualities of unrequited love and class differences. I would like to say Newell’s version completely delivers but it lacks a certain spark that prevents a fully satisfying experience for viewers already familiar with the story.
All the primary and secondary characters from the novel are included in some form, following the conventional timeline seen in so many prior adaptations. Pip (Jeremy Irvine) is a young orphan that changes his life forever by helping out an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes). Pip does not even know the man’s name, Abel Magwitch, when he provides the prisoner a file and pie he takes from his guardians, his aunt and uncle. After the man is found by the authorities, Pip begins to grow up and then becomes a blacksmith’s apprentice under his uncle, a kind man Pip views as his father. Pip is not wealthy by any means but happy in his simple life of blacksmithing.
He soon comes under the purview of one of the most twisted characters in literary history, Miss Havisham (Helen Bonham Carter). Miss Havisham lives in a dilapidated mansion and lords her immense wealth over her poor relatives, refusing to allow daylight into her house. It is a meaty role for any actress and Helen Bonham Carter gives a convincing turn as the mad spinster. Always wearing a wedding dress, she raises the beautiful Estella (Holliday Grainger) to hate men with a passion and mercilessly destroy them. Destiny seemingly draws Estella and Pip together, a completely mismatched pair of lonely children.
Bringing Estella up as a lady of distinction and class, Miss Havisham pays the working class Pip to visit the mansion. Her intention of toying with him are immediately apparent, pushing Pip to fall in love with the aloof and cold Estella, hoping to eventually crush his spirit. The plan works too well and as soon as it becomes clear that Estella is starting to fall for the poor boy, Miss Havisham sends him away. She tells him that Estella is meant for a gentleman, not a poor lad such as Pip.
In one of the most famous turns in English literature, a mysterious benefactor that wishes to remain anonymous gives Pip a huge monthly stipend with the condition he’ll become a proper gentleman. He moves to London and begins to live the life of the idle rich. This sudden windfall for Pip gives him the hope he might have a real chance with Estella, his true love. Great Expectations is a finely layered story and its emotional complexities build as Pip becomes buffeted by forces greater than himself. Everything unfolds in a precise manner that reveals surprising connections between all its characters.
The story itself is nearly unmatched as thematically rich source material, and there are good reasons why it is one of Dickens’ most beloved novels. Memorable characters like Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) are an important facet, adding to the rich tapestry of the period setting. Mike Newell is conservative in adding his own imprint to Great Expectations, allowing each actor room to work and add their own flair to their role.
Ralph Fiennes plays the small (but critical) role of Magwitch. It is an overwrought performance, slightly out of step with the rest of the film. Helen Bonham Carter gives a better turn as Miss Havisham than Gillian Anderson did in another recent adaptation, which was over the top in her mannerisms. The two nominal leads in Pip and Estella don’t add the same amount of gravitas to their respective roles but the characters are so finely written that it doesn’t really matter.
This is not a perfect adaptation of Great Expectations. It is hard to exactly pinpoint what is missing from the mix as its acting is uniformly superb and production values are quite good. The script and editing fail a bit for the critical scenes between Magwitch and Pip, knocking out what should be the movie’s linchpin. Fans of the novel will find a lot to like in this telling of Dickens’ tale, while more casual audiences should probably be steered towards other adaptations like David Lean’s classic take starring a young Alec Guinness or even the 1998 Hollywood version featuring Ethan Hawke.
Fox presents this BBC film in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio at 1080p. The AVC video encode on the main feature averages a very high 31.75 Mbps. For a movie with lavish set design and costume work, the cinematography produces erratic and inconsistent video results. It appears that natural lighting was heavily favored, sometimes only by candlelight. A variety of cameras, including 35mm film, achieve middling picture quality.
Some of the exteriors look quite nice, loaded with definition and incredibly sharp. The fine detail in close-ups reveal a solid amount of high-frequency content. What does not fair so well is the uneven grain structure and dense black levels, often choking out any level of shadow delineation. Crushed black levels frequently lead to poor visibility, the inside of Miss Havisham’s mansion makes for a very poor viewing experience. The contrast does not go unaffected, especially in brighter scenes with blown highlights.
A teal push leads to cooler color temperatures and mildly inconsistent flesh-tones that lack proper warmth. A few of the secondary shots appear to have been from inferior digital cameras, as their weak resolution and softness make for a drastic difference at times.
I don’t see anything wrong in the video due to Fox’s treatment. They likely used the same digital intermediate given to them used for the original UK release. Great Expectations is not a pretty film most of the time and occasionally chokes on the noisy grain in some scenes. This is likely an authentic representation of what was seen in theaters. The rough inconsistencies lead to the reduced score.
One stellar aspect of this Blu-ray is the fantastic 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. An atmospheric score and a number of subtle audio cues bolster an impressive surround presentation. The streets of Victorian London come alive in full clarity as Pip walks to his new place. Dialogue is cleanly recorded and there are a number of well-designed elements spread across the soundstage, including pinpoint placement of certain FX.
Two optional subtitles are included for listeners. The English SDH and Spanish subs appear in a white font which remain inside the 2.35:1 widescreen framing at all times.
Fox did not include the special features found on the UK release by Lionsgate. That Blu-ray had about 24-minutes of featurettes, including some deleted scenes not found on this BD. What we get here is one very brief featurette that is not much more than an extended trailer.
Great Expectations includes an UltraViolet digital copy that redeems in full HDX quality on VUDU.
Great Expectations: Trailer (02:29 in HD)
Great Expectations: Premiere (03:37 in HD) – Somehow they manage to squeeze in brief answers from director Mike Newell and a couple of producers. Running under four minutes, this is not really worth watching.
Three trailers precede the main menu, all of which can be skipped: Romeo & Juliet (02:27 in HD), Dakota’s Summer (01:31 in HD), Still Mine (02:10 in HD)
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.