Film | Great Expectations (2012)

‘You’re in every thought, in every line I have ever read since I first came here. You’re in the river, the sails of ships, the sea, the clouds, the stones of London. Until the last hours of my life, you will remain in me.’ 

I’m surprised it has taken me so long to finally watch the 2012 film adaptation of Great Expectations, but I now have the advantage of not having the 2011 BBC adaptation fresh in my mind for comparison. Perhaps it is unfair to judge an adaptation based on those that have preceded it and should be appreciated – or not – based solely on what it is in itself. That is especially true considering one is a 3 part TV drama with much longer screen-time, and the other for cinema with a much smaller time frame and less time to develop the story and complex characterisation.

Often directors choose to focus on different elements, and of course every reader (and director) has his or her own interpretation of a novel. The BBC version had breathtakingly sumptuous cinematography and focussed more on Miss Havisham and the relationship between Pip and Magwitch. Mike Newell’s film, on the other hand, dwells on the hopeless love of Pip and Estella. It wasn’t the same relationship I remember when I read the novel – Newell’s Estella is not so cruel as a child and not so cold as a young woman. Holliday Grainger depicts a woman torn between the cold, manipulative woman that Miss Havisham has raised her to be and the soft vulnerability of a heart that is constantly denied. Grainger executes Estella’s anguish wonderfully.

Jeremy Irvin is still a little too pretty for a blacksmith, but he portrays the naive and simple Pip well, his love for Estella is strong and believable. Dicken’s Estella is cold and unmoving, and Pip – naive and easily manipulated – claims to love her against all reason, but Newell shows Pip to know Estella’s deeper softness, which is the reason why he loves her. This differs from the original but allows for further sentiment, turning it into more of a romance than Dicken’s novel.

It isn’t a perfect retelling of their lives, but I love that Newell’s depiction of Pip and Estella’s relationship is passionate without the need for sensuality or dramatic choreography. It is a very emotional and human love between two orphans wanting to escape their old lives. Pip’s speech to Estella when asking her to come away with him is poignant, and Estella’s resulting anguish very moving. For me, their relationship made this film.

There are some big names in this film, but I have to confess before seeing the film I couldn’t imagine Helena Bonham Carter playing Miss Havisham, nor Ralph Fiennes playing Magwitch. Carter was a complete disappointment as Miss Havisham – I read somewhere that Carter’s performance was like something out of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and I have to agree. I love the juxtaposition of humour and darkness in Dickens’ writing, but it seems all wrong here – Miss Havisham is not a comic character,  she is meant to be grotesque and tragic, not ridiculous. I actually have no words to describe her death in this film – I believe my exact words at the time were “WHAT THE FRIG?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be sick. This also meant that the mother-daughter relationship between Miss Havisham and Estella was entirely unbelievable.

Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, was wonderful. He didn’t play the conventional Magwitch that we’ve come to see – he wasn’t overly cockney or particularly savage. Even at the beginning of the film, when he manipulates Pip into bringing him food, there is an element of softness about Fienness’ look which immediately begs the audience for empathy, and grows as the film progresses. Pip’s relationship with Magwitch isn’t given enough screen time, however, and is overshadowed by Estella. We don’t, therefore, see much of the complexities of their relationship and how this develops by the end of the film.

As for the other characters, Jason Flemyng was absolutely superb as Joe Gargery. He has quite a creepy face and I haven’t overcome my sickness of his character as Alec D’Urberville, but this has completely softened me towards him! Ewen Bremner was also fantastic as Wemmick, as was Herbert Pocket played by Olly Alexander. It is through these characters that Neville managed to capture the Dickensian balance of humour and humanness. Bentley Drummle, however, seemed ridiculously like he’d just stepped out of Grease.

Overall, I enjoyed this adaptation, despite the disaster that was Miss Havisham.


  1. Humayrah

    Really enjoyed reading this review! Disappointing that the way Miss Havisham was portrayed didn’t live up to her cruel character that was so perfectly narrated in Dicken’s Novel. I remember being quite scared of her character reading the novel as a teenager. Definitely planning on watching this film, Thank you!

    • hafsah

      Hi Humayrah, thank you for taking the time to read my review and leaving a comment :-) I agree, Miss Havisham is quite terrifying isn’t she? And at the same time, Dickens draws out our empathy towards her, we both dislike her and yet feel sorry for her. That was totally missing in this film, which was a shame. Do let me know what you think of it when you manage to watch it :-) x

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