Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Great Expectations

Directed by Mike Newell. 2012.

Critics often observe that great technique can redeem humble subject matter with examples The Magic Flute to Raiders of the Lost Ark of talent triumphing over paltry literary offerings. Less often do we observe–perhaps because it is less often the case–that an ingenious story holds up a mediocre execution. That's what we have though in Mike Newell's 2012 film adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations in which the author's ageless characters and one of his most satisfying and ingenious plots manage to shine through a veil of murky production and direction.

Dickens needs neither praise nor summary, but we might do some of both by observing Great Expectations' world of contrasts. We have the two orphans, Pip and Estella, each raised to gentility from squalid conditions. While each learns to be false for the new persona, Dickens inverts the parallels. For example, while they both tell untruths to others, Pip presents his studied propriety to the world and Estella a false interest in men, they give lies of omission to each other as kindness: Estella refrains from expressing her genuine interest in Pip, because she thinks she will hurt him, and Pip hides the truth about Estella's ignoble parents.

Their patrons are also a pair of contrasts with both Magwitch and Miss Havisham seeking to save someone from his and her terrible fate. Magwitch hopes by funding Pip's life as gentleman to spare him the squalor and suffering he knew as a criminal while Estella is brought up to avoid the same fate which jilted Miss Havisham at the altar. Yet contrasts persist here as well. First, while Magwitch stays out of Pips life, only helping him from afar by means of an allowance, Miss Havisham tries to remake Estella. Second, Miss Havisham seeks someone to raise as such while Magwitch is simply repaying Pip's kindness to a criminal that Christmas morning. Dickens' masterful denouement manages to thread and contrast both pairs of characters.

First, both tutors fail, Magwitch by omission and Havisham by meddling, to raise the children. Surrounded by falsity Pip becomes prey to his own affectations, and guided by Miss Havisham Estella's heart becomes hardened against love. Second, Magwitch is rewarded with a peaceable death when his beloved Pip informs the dying ex-con that his daughter, whom he thought dead from consumption in childhood, not only lives but has the affections of his very own Pip. On the other hand, Miss Havisham endures a fiery end worthy of Euripides. Finally, Pip and Estella are redeemed by selfless loves which endured past rejection. The first is Pip's own love for Estella which paves the way for their relationship by remaining past her rejection of Pip to the death of her husband. The second is that of Pip's brother in law Joe, whose craft and apprenticeship Pip rejected for the gentleman's life but who still spent his life's fortune to pay off the debts Pip accrued in the absence of Magwitch's confiscated fortune. Great Expectations' is an ending both elaborate and elegant, satisfying and moving as its threads, ever in contrast to one another even as they share space, time, and attributes, at last resolve.

Would that the expression of such a great work had equal vitality. Instead the direction and nearly every production element threaten at nearly every turn to enervate Dickens' vital characters and plot. Now one can look past the narrow color palette and flat tones, whose purpose is clearly to accentuate the characters at the expense of the environment. In fact I might even praise the aesthetic sacrifice. What I cannot overlook is the relentlessly flat direction. There's no dynamic variety to the movie. There's no mood to many scenes, no sense of tone to complement the emotion and activity. Even lighthearted moments like those between Pip and his chum Herbert Pocket don't play as light-hearted scenes because they don't have the support of direction which shapes the scene into something more than words and motion. Neither the marsh nor river nor forge achieve a sense of place nor even do the opulent settings later feel much a contrast. Only the office of the solicitor, Jagger, seems lived in, and the scenes there have a certain sense of type as Pip picks up his allowance from the lawyer barraged by clients. The cinematography is also unhelpful, with awkward close and mid-range shots forcing us around at inopportune moments. Even the blocking at times seems to stymie the sense of space and scene.

The only scenes which succeed visually and tonally as well as in terms of plot, that is to say which succeed as scenes, are two between Joe and Pip. We see the first when Pip impresses Joe with his writing. The moment achieves a sweetness because neither knows just how bad poor Pip's spelling really is. Complementing the action, the camera rests behind the pair as they recline next to one another on the river's crunchy coastline. The second scene contrasts the first. Now Pip admonishes Joe's provincial manners at the table of an urban tavern and here they sit facing one another, opposed. These scenes are subtle and more effective than the seeming absence of direction elsewhere. There's a line between Newell's spare style and the globs of gloss which often cake upon classics and Dickens, A Christmas Carol most infamously. Only a moderate touch will support without distracting by absence or excess.

The cast is fine, but most of all Toby Irvine as Young Pip and Jason Fleming as Joe Gargery shine. There's a sweetness to their simple relationship, and Young Pip does seem to have something bottled within, something which Joe with his wide smile and unconditional love tries to shield. In another good scene, between the two above, Joe gets tongue-tied as he tries to speak properly for Miss Havisham and Pip, now a teen, nudges him to keep it simple. Unfortunately, Young Estella suggests more of interest with her educated affectation than the lapidary stares of her older self, and Helena Bonham Carter seems too Tim Burtonized and Harry Potterized to come off as damaged and not simply eccentric. Finally, Ralph Finnes is superb as Magwitch. We get a real sense of the urgency he feels to help Pip, an angry desire to make amends to Pip for the world.

While a more moderate style would have better served the story, with a fine cast one of Dickens' best works shines through. To its credit, there are no distractions or intrusions upon the plot and characters. I enjoyed that characters weren't burdened with excessive dialogue and cues to remind audiences who-is-who, but it can be a tad on the confusing side. Perhaps Newell's biggest success with this look at Great Expectations is the sense of gravity he brings to Pip's initial act of kindness. We really sense his risk and fear, but the deed also contrasts the passivity that characterizes his youth. Pip didn't have the ability to choose very much, and his lone choice was an act of kindness. The weight of his act, as both a kindness and a singular event, presses home all the points of the resolution not only because it sets them in motion but also because in resolution we see all the loves are the same: undeserved, unasked, selfless, and enduring.

No comments:

Post a Comment