Great Expectations (1999)


One of the more fascinating pieces of literature from the Victorian age is Great Expectations, Dickens' shockingly ambiguous story about a young man's journey through a difficult childhood, sudden wealth, and eventual heartache. The tale is fascinating but unsatisfying to those seeking the author's usual classic happy ending. As a boy, young Pip lives with his sister, a wretched woman who loathes him to no end, and his kindly uncle (Clive Russell), an illiterate local blacksmith. While visiting his mother's grave he discovers an escaped convict in the cemetery, who threatens him with death unless he agrees to be of help. The boy steals some food from the pantry and offers it to the wayward soul (Bernard Hill). Not long thereafter the man is recaptured and sent back to prison. Pip in the meantime has been given an opportunity.


Miss Havisham (Charlotte Rampling), an eccentric and mysterious middle-aged woman, one of the wealthiest in the four counties, is in search of a little boy. For the amusement of herself as well as her niece Estella, she wishes Pip to come for an interview. The little boy is dressed in his finest and sent off to the creepy old house which stands beyond a wrought iron gate and untended grounds. The house itself is gloomy and dark, the mistress keeping to only a single set of apartments on the second floor. Estella is a beautiful little girl but heartless. Her aunt is sinister and strange, having a contempt for the male sex after being jilted at the alter by a fortune hunter. Everything has been left as it was the day of her wedding. The wedding feast still adorns the magnificent table, now infested with rats and maggots. The woman herself still wears her wedding gown. Pip finds them fascinating but cruel, and is told to return again.


Having given him a glimpse of finery and possible happiness (as well as torment, for the little boy loves Estella despite herself), Miss Havisham then informs him her niece is to be sent abroad to become a lady, and she has no more need for him. They had hoped she would settle the boy with expectations but instead he's sent back to work in his uncle's blacksmith shop, a labor he abhors. Years pass. Pip (Ioan Gruffudd) has grown into a fine young man, but has not seen Estella since their childhood parting. Misfortune lays upon their family with the murder of his sister and his uncle's resulting unhappiness. But then an unexpected item of news comes into his life. An unnamed benefactor wishes to leave him with great expectations. He's to be taken to London and educated as a gentleman. Overwhelmed with gratitude for his newfound riches, Pip rapidly takes to society and becomes very spoiled. His old life falls away, abandoning his former friends for those with influence and wealth. And once again into his inner circle enters Estella (Justine Waddell).


Being one of the more unique novels of Dickens, the screenplay seems ill-paced and has a dissatisfying conclusion. The audience is left with the impression Pip grows foolhardy with his money and spends much of it, but never seem to gain what the narrorator informs us -- that he is spoiled, snobbish, and self-serving. Either this information never made it into the script or the actors fail to portray it well. There are a large number of sinister figures in Pip's dark little world, but none more fascinating than Miss Havisham. The woman is half mad with anger and resentment yet allows herself to portray gentle sincerity in the hope of ruining all the men in her acquaintance. She's hard to pin down. Having never read the book, I failed to understand many of her motivations. The same goes for the rest of the characters, which makes me believe -- knowing Dickens talent for introducing us to his long-enduring characters -- the screenplay itself was inferior. It's certainly not up to par with Our Mutual Friend or David Copperfield.


The acting is quite good, as is the costume design. The photography takes time to get used to but eventually goes unnoticed. Tight camera angels, silhouettes and far-off shots build up the mood of a dark London. But there's almost nothing to the musical score and while the sets are atmospheric, the story lacks any true emotion. We stick through to the end in the hope something good will happen, but it never does. Pip does regain some of his lost compassion and dignity but is never excessively likable. Estella we want to admire despite her thoughtlessness, but we simply never see enough of her to form any sort of attachment. There's really nothing wrong with the film's content except for the morbid state of rooms Miss Havisham keeps. The camera likes to dwell on the rotting cake and the insects invading the hall. There's only a few mild abuses of deity and no sexual content, although two men do get in a quarrel over toasting a woman in company. Violence does occasionally crop up.


One of London's streets is bathed in blood at a meat market. Two little boys engage in a good-natured fistfight. Later a man threatens to kill someone else, kicking him several times in the chest. Two convicts fight with one another. A man is dragged beneath a paddlewheel; we see him sinking through the water with blood coming from his mouth. An unconscious woman has markings of violence. Another woman is seen through a window with a bruise on the side of her face. Conversation references that her husband "uses her cruelly." Eventually she leaves him. The first forty minutes of the film are by far the dullest, but from there it's more easily traversed. There's really nothing wrong with it aside from poor character development. Fans of the leading cast will be drawn to the adaptation just for another glimpse at their favorite young thespians. But it could have been done with greater passion and ambition. 

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