The reason Great Expectations is adapted so repeatedly for film and TV is the sheer opulence of Charles Dickens' yarn. It's an epic coming-of-age story, with elements of fairy tale, mystery, and twisted romance.
British director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) makes a worthy addition to the canon, one that honors the source while making some small but significant alterations.
Newell gives the story a matte finish, as opposed to David Lean's glossy 1946 classic. He creates a convincing evocation of early Victorian England, particularly the squalid splendor of bustling London, without resorting to extensive CGI effects.
Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) plays the orphan Pip, for whom wisdom always arrives arm-in-arm with regret. In a felicitous bit of casting, Irvine's younger brother, Toby, plays the adolescent Pip.
Ralph Fiennes plays Magwitch, Pip's unlikely benefactor; Holliday Grainger, the steely Estella; and Robbie Coltrane, the string-pulling lawyer Jaggers. Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as Miss Havisham, a widow without portfolio, fossilized in her own resentment. Bonham Carter, it becomes apparent, has been rehearsing this character uncredited for years in other movies.
Screenwriter David Nicholls (Tess of the D'Urbervilles) effectively expands the role of Bentley Drummle (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Pip's perfidious rival.
More important, Nicholls has created a rich alternative conclusion, one that poignantly sweetens the love story.
It's a novel approach to Great Expectations - sharp and gritty giving way to a sentimental finish - and a satisfying one.
Great Expectations *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Mike Newell. With Jeremy Irvine, Ralph Fiennes, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter, and Robbie Coltrane. Distributed by Main Street Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence)
Showing at: Ritz Five and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ