When Mike Newell set out to direct yet another movie based on Charles Dickens' classic novel "Great Expectations," he did something very clever to insure market appeal for his project: He reassembled the troops from the Harry Potter films to head the cast.
Not all of them of course. Just Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as the convict Magwitch and Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers the attorney. Newell, who directed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," added two appealing young actors: Jeremy Irvine of "War Horse" as Pip, and fiery redhead Holliday Grainger as his emotionally unreceptive heartthrob Estella.
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Newell's "Great Expectations" won't pose any threats to David Lean's definitive 1946 adaptation, but it marks an improvement over the 1998 Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow remake directed by Alfonso Cuarón, coincidentally another "Harry Potter" director (of the excellent "Prisoner of Azkaban").
Screenwriter David Nicholls wisely dumps Pip's personal perspective from the book and, with John Mathieson's superb widescreen cinematography, opens up the narrative as we trace how a poor, working-class lad named Pip, trained to be a blacksmith, evolves into a high-society gentleman, thanks to a mystery sponsor.
Irvine brings appealing apprehension and hope to the struggling Pip. Grainger does not need key lighting to make her presence pop on the silver screen. Fiennes infuses Magwitch with villainy first, empathy later.
Then comes Carter with the movie's showcase performance as a mentally disturbed lady, now slogging around her mansion in her wedding gown, looking as if it hasn't been cleaned since the day her would-be groom dumped her at the altar years earlier.
Hers is a wonderful rendering of Miss Havisham, equal parts melancholy, good-hearted and downright creepy.
"Great Expectations" opens at the River East 21 in Chicago, the Renaissance in Highland Park and the Evanston CineArts 6. Rated PG-13 for violence. 128 minutes. ★ ★ ★