Pip is an orphan brought up in grinding poverty, but he’s good-natured—he even shows kindness by taking food to a violent escaped convict. But being raised by a semi-literate blacksmith, he has no expectations.
One day he is escorted to a large manor house on the whim of the owner, Miss Havisham. To say that Miss Havisham is eccentric is like saying the surface of the sun is a touch hot. She constantly wears her wedding gown from decades ago, when she was jilted on the day of her wedding. And the drawing room still has the wedding cake and other preparations from that very day. For that matter, the entire house has been preserved as it was in that one moment, when she received the letter telling her it was over. But not exactly preserved—rotting.
In the midst of all this is Estella, a young orphan just like Pip. Pip has been brought to play with her. But Estella has been trained by Miss Havisham to exact vengeance on the male half of the race. Pretty, flirtatious, but with a heart of ice, she educates Pip in the finer things of life while only showing him coldness. Poor fool, the young Pip falls in love with her.
One day Pip is arbitrarily sent away by Miss Havisham. Not content at being an apprentice blacksmith, Pip dreams of someday being a gentleman while hammering away. Then a lawyer shows up out of the blue. He informs Pip he has great expectations. An unnamed benefactor has decided to sponsor Pip to live the life of a gentleman. He is to leave for London immediately.
Pip thanks Miss Havisham and goes off to London, where he joins a gentlemen’s club and begins the difficult transition of becoming mannered. But what price lurks behind this sudden change in fortune? And when he sees Estella again, she is busy flirting with the most unworthy of these moneyed young men. Can he reach her heart?
This 2012 version of Great Expectations is a lush, dark, beautiful retelling of the tale. One of the standout scenes is when Pip (Jeremy Irvine) arrives in London in a foppish-looking small town concept of a gentleman’s suit, only to be greeted by the fresh butchery needed to feed the city, street urchins trying to sell him all manner of things, and lots and lots of mud. Then the thuggish behavior of the young gentlemen in the club, who are assured of incomes they never earned, fairly bursts off the screen in their thoughtless boisterousness. Other period details, from moss on a gravestone to the gems in Estella’s hair to the impending approach of the great paddlewheel of an oncoming ship are so perfectly portrayed that they stay imbedded in the mind’s eye. Some of the early scenes with young Pip and Estella are lit by genuine lamplight, which shows the effort taken to be authentic.
Although Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger as Estella do their best, they are overshadowed by the older stars. Ralph Fiennes is unrecognizable as the convict Magwitch, and it looks scarily uncomfortable to be within several paces of him in his dirt-caked persona, muck and saliva hardening in his beard. And Helena Bonham Carter is just disturbing as Miss Havisham with her deathly pallor. She can dismiss Pip with an abrupt “Goodbye” that surprises, or seem to become lost within her wedding gown. She dominates almost every scene she’s in, even when she’s being wheeled around in her chair while lying almost horizontal. The one exception is when Holliday Grainger comes into her own, and as Estella, tells Miss Havisham, “You made me.”
This version stays surprisingly faithful to the book without any harm to the pacing. This is a movie worth clearing an evening for, to watch the macabre and splendid aspects of Victorian life compete with each other in this Dickens’ classic.
For those of you who saw the 2011 version on PBS, with Douglass Booth as Pip, Vanessa Kirby as Estella, Ray Winstone as Magwitch, and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, I’ll make a few comparisons. This is also a beautiful version, but instead of staying as close to the book, it was somewhat more of a reimagining. That is, they would take certain moods and themes from the story and find their own way of expressing them in a compelling way.
I’d have to say the newer version has the better cast. Gillian Anderson was impressive as Miss Havisham, but she played her in a scary way, rather than as an eccentric. I’ll make an exception for Ray Winstone. It’s true that Ralph Fiennes is quite the chameleon in his acting skills, but Ray Winstone has a face that’s been “lived in,” and he makes the better convict Magwitch.
The end of the 2011 version has more of a CliffNotes version of the fates of Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella. It’s best to see this version first, than the 2012 version. It’s kind of like making sure to go to Disneyland before going to Disneyworld.