Great Expectations (London Film Festival review)

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Great Expectations green light Jeremy Irvine

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have read the source material (but not for years and years)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I love it when a film that is “supposed” to be all stuffy and classic turns out to be this electric and alive. I love it more when it’s based on Charles Dickens, around whom has accrued a heritage of gravity and importance, like his work was a mealy good-for-you-vegetable to be gulped down when in fact he was nothing more than the Stephen King, the J.K. Rowling, the kickass beach-read diversion of his day. This Great Expectations gets that, reminds us that Dickens’ stories were about real — or as realish as fiction gets — people living in the modern world, with earthy dreams and desires, who don’t realize they’re characters in a costume drama who are supposed to behave with a certain level of literary decorum.

We’re still in the mid 19 century, but this young Pip (Toby Irvine) is just the teensiest bit Harry Potter-ish, in how he yearns for the bigger world beyond the narrow confines of country life and his prospects as a blacksmith. (Director Mike Newell gave us 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) And he gets it, via the creepy attentions of odd Miss Havisham, who dwells in her own bizarre grim fantasy world, locked in the moment just after her wedding, many years earlier, crashed and burned, and who has “a sick fancy” to see children play. (Helena Bonham Carter [Dark Shadows, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2] was born to play this role, which has a lovely twisted haunted-house, corpse-bride hint of what Tim Burton would do with such a character.) And he gets more than he ever expected when a mysterious benefactor later bestows upon him a small fortune and the means to become the gentleman of London that has always been his ambition.

As the older, but not yet actually grownup Pip, Jeremy Irvine (Now Is Good) — elder brother of Toby, which explains the remarkable resemblance between the two actors, as well as a shared wide-eyed charm, that films so rarely achieve in similar circumstances — is wonderful, the perfectly naive bumpkin abroad in the big city. And Newell gives him a city to be dazzled and baffled by, a lively bustling metropolis populated by, among others, a gaggle of punk peacocks meant to be his peers. (They appall him, and us, with their shallow loutishness.) From the gentlemen’s club where they congregate to the lawyer’s chambers that is the nest of Pip’s guardian solicitor (Robbie Coltrane: Brave, Arthur Christmas), there’s galvanic edge in the sharp eccentricity of foppish style and modern urban energy, which feels as absurd and as captivating as any present-day city can. The party to which Pip has chased Estella (Holliday Grainger: Anna Karenina, Bel Ami), Miss Havisham’s ward with whom Pip has been entranced since they were children playing together for the woman’s sick fancy, rocks with the danger inherent in a waltz, a danger that Estella is well aware of, and calculates for maximum affect.

So romantic intrigue, then, too! And mystery and comedy and horror. Dickens’s mad stew of melodrama is fully intact here, and fully as enrapturing as he intended it to be. Newell and screenwriter David Nicholls — and the rest of the marvelous cast, which also features Sally Hawkins (Never Let Me Go, An Education), Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall, Wrath of the Titans), Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class, Hanna), and Ewen Bremner (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Fool’s Gold) — wring a beautifully observed round robin of cruelty and despair and petty punishment, but then kindness and love too, out of Pip’s rise and semifall, out of the bittersweet authenticity of a young man’s discovery that the world is grander and stranger, and meaner and smaller, than he imagined it was.

This is how you do a classic story right: by pretending there’s nothing old-fashioned and everything right-now about it.

viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival

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