Great Expectations Movie Review: Newell’s Take On Impromptu Existentialism

No sooner had the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations turned up in movie theaters, then the chorus of critic groans could be heard, something to the effect of, not another one. But would these exasperated movie reviewers say the same of yet another Shakespearean production, say of Hamlet?

Not likely, to say the least. The very notion of an immortal classic being its application in spirit, sensibility and yes, politics to any era. And Great Expectations could not be more relevant in its ironic title alone to this age of economic crisis in capitalism and the trauma of systemic downward class mobility. And yes, even those naysayer careerist critics – caught up in their own financial dilemma within struggling commercial media downsizing and layoffs that have seen their numbers dwindle.

So what has Mike Newell’s new screen adaptation brought to the table – a director (Prince Of Persia, Indiana Jones) who has perhaps seen his own expectations in Hollywood shaken lately. Well, plenty actually. And quite related to notions parallel in our own time to the human canvas back then, and the influence of social and economic upheaval itself on dramatic forms.

In effect, with traditional classic configurations grounded in religion, predictability and fate narrowly defining narrative structure up until then. That is, until writers like Dickens under the sway of primitive capitalism and class uncertainty, unleashed both the erratically and turbulently brutal and comical in storytelling. Along with an unrelenting novel narrative tension that might be characterized as impromptu existentialism.

And a period of primitive capitalism in the 19th century that Dickens both captured and was caught up in – replacing the social stability under feudalism, however oppressive – that gave way to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. And the Victorian new market economy tossing serfs off the land and into the chaotic cities, stripping them of any sense of future or even survival.

And it is within this uncertain and besieged world that Great Expectations imperiled protagonist Pip (Jeremy Irvine) is cast adrift, his endangered fortunes or even sense of self perpetually tenuous. While intellect and cunning replace custom and feudal tradition by necessity. With identity a mere tool, indeed sharpened weapon of survival to be made up as you go along, in aspiring to the newly emerging, ruthlessly competitive middle class.

Which strangely to perhaps audiences today, rendered Dickens contemporary Karl Marx – living in England at the time – an enthusiastic ideological admirer of the popular writer. Marx wrote about Dickens:

‘…The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class, from the “highly genteel” annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer’s clerk.

And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Bronte and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilized world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class, that “they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them..” .’

Though where Marx sharply parted ways with Dickens, pertained to potential solutions. And with Dickens, while sympathetic to the plight of the masses, fearing their power should their pent up rage be released. And advocating charity rather than social struggle, while Marx famously prescribed losing those chain as the cure.

And in this manner, persistent themes that apply in many senses today, are vividly at the core of Dickens, and of Newell’s film adaptation. Which bypasses Hollywood glitter and gloss for intense naked emotions and raw truths, however delightfully hyper-eccentric and coarse the characters.

As such, class divisions and clashes abound in astutely telling, predatory ways. And money always lurks about, as that Faustian, eternal elephant in the room. Overshadowing the stubborn, symbolically laden twisted figure of Miss Havisham (magnificently conveyed by Helena Bonham Carter). A literally rotting aristocracy, both clinging to and imprisoned in a disappearing and ruined past visualized in her rotting wedding cake and stopped clocks.

All of which conveys in Newell’s latest interpretation of Dickens and Great Expectations on screen, an enormously engaging achievement that is absorbing and relevant to our somewhat comparably precarious hard times. And with credit as well to Ralph Fiennes’ intensely stunning and unsettling performance as the socially victimized, scorned savior Magwitch. While in yet another curious irony on hand, Fiennes upstaging himself these past weeks over his far less impressive and diluted turn as Dickens himself, in the Fiennes directed The Invisible Woman.

Prairie Miller
Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network's Arts Express.