Film review: Great Expectations (12A)

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FILM
Great Expectations
(12A) 128mins
★★★✩✩

IN A NUTSHELL
Mike Newell's adaptation shows grit and integrity but lacks magic and gets lost in the fog.

REVIEW
"I won't deny there have been too many secrets," declares solicitor and guardian Jaggers - and a wry snicker circles the auditorium. Too true, too true, we think.

Great Expectations may be Charles Dickens' most beloved book but it also ranks alongside his most preposterous

Boiled down into a series of confrontations, revelations, familial convolutions and cliffhangers, the resulting pulp would colour the most outrageous of American daytime soaps.

But Dickens turned this mush into magic by gumming words together like no man before or since - with a tragi-comic brilliance and - most crucially - with energy.

Yet this earnest and charm-deficient adaptation of the story of Pip - from blacksmith's boy to London gentleman by means of a mystery benefactor - is left to mope on a leash.

David Nicholls writes and Mike Newell directs a film that longs to be the definitive version of the age.

And the ingredients are there - the mud and blood of the marshes and the streets of London; the script sonorous and gratifying; the pacing busy and condensed; the cast neatly picked but where's the fun? The moment?

Fog rolls across the marshes and also across the eyes of the participants.

Take for example Miss Havisham in yellowing dress, doll-like and fragile in her remote rat-strewn stately home.

All the ingredients of a Tim Burton gothic comic epic are present (including Helena Bonham Carter).

But she is pallid, inconclusive, neither frightening nor comic nor weird.

A few of this excellent if lacklustre ensemble turn up the heat - David Walliams an inspired choice as Mr Pumplechook; Ewan Bremner bright-eyed as Wemmick, Ralph Fiennes throatily grim as Magwitch - but they are beaten down by their eerily subdued fellows - Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Joe, Jason Flemyng as amiable Jo.

Maybe the trouble lies with this particular story. The best bits are at the beginning, in the graveyard, in Satis House with the spooky Estella and boisterous Pale Young Gentleman.

Beyond that, an unravelling. The middle section is ramshackle and the last act a welter of improbabilities.

Pip (Jeremy Irvine) is honourable but unresolved so the onslaught of revelations appear pedestrian or barmy and his love for Estella (Holliday Grainger) a fiddly distraction.

Nicholls (Starter For Ten, One Day) has professed his love for this work from the earliest age but the adoration has translated into stilted awe.

This film is a checklist of iconic scenes and, despite the twists and turns, comparison of adaptations provides the best route through.

Not bad, of course, but not as good as it should have been and so, sadly, qualifies as a disappointment.