Latest film version of Dicken's classic gaining critical attention

The newest film adaptation of a Dickens novel is making waves at numerous film festivals, including the one in Abu Dhabi.

Helena Bonham Carter in Great Expectations (Photo by Johan Persson)
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Even by Hollywood's standards of repetition, the latest film version of "Great Expectations" is an odd prospect for cinema goers.

Charles Dickens' classic novel has been adapted innumerable times for stage and screen, with the most recent coming just last year when the BBC produced a serialised version starring Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson.

In these circumstances, the latest film by Mike Newell, the celebrated director whose credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, should be met with shrugging apathy. Yet it has become the cornerstone of several major film festivals this year, winning critical praise at all of them. So what makes this new twist on an old classic so compelling, given the weight of history running against it?

Set during the early-to-mid 19th century, Dickens' 1860 novel follows a poor young country boy named Pip who, through a mysterious benefactor becomes a London gentleman, his desire for greatness spurred by his undying love for Estella, a cruel young woman raised by her demented guardian, Miss Havisham.

Newell is no stranger to well-known books, having successfully adapted Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire into a US $900 million (Dh3.3 billion) box office hit, and he takes a similar confident approach to this story. Newell's film is assured, taking confident strides with familiar material, and also playing up the 'dark and light' aesthetic.

The almost idyllic coastal plains in the east of England where Pip grows up are contrasted with the grim, loud, and chaotic streets of Victorian London, a subtle confirmation of the audience's slow realisation that, while Pip's fortunes and company may have improved, morally he slips further into the mud.

It behooves the filmmaker to make such a self-assured story, given that most people seeing this film will have at least seen another version, and some probably holding the past dear to their hearts. Probably the greatest example is David Lean's 1946 version, starring the great John Mills as Pip. It is considered the standard by which all subsequent adaptations are measured, and by many to be one of the greatest British films of all time. Just as that film took the most prominent actors (Alec Guinness, Valerie Miles) of the day to fill their cast, Newell picks two mainstays of British costume drama to fills the story's most famous roles. Fresh from his last performance as Harry Potter's nemesis Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes remains an intimidating presence as Magwitch, a criminal whom Pip encounters at the beginning of the film, while Helena Bonham Carter puts a unique, gothic spin on arguably the most famous character in the book, Miss Havisham.No doubt lending from her darker roles, particularly in husband Tim Burton's films, the image of Bonham Carter's Havisham wearing a tattered wedding dress and hiding in shadow amongst the cobwebs is one that has been used heavily in the film's marketing.

Contrasting with these established names is the presence of some of the film industry's most promising younger talent. Jeremy Irvine takes the lead as Pip in the third film of what has been a remarkable 2012 for the 21-year-old actor.

Having made his cinema debut as the lead in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated War Horse, he now continues his meteoric rise by playing the older Pip. Irvine has already garnered great acclaim for his performances; Steven Spielberg describing the young actor as having "that ineffable quality that certain stars have, or certain exceptional people have… to just stand out and rise above the rest".

His co-star Holliday Grainger, as Estella, the object of Pip's affections, has already played opposite both Robert Pattinson and Keira Knightley this year (in "Bel Ami" and "Anna Karenina" respectively), and impressed on the small screen in HBO's The Borgias.

Great Expectations opens at the festival tomorrow night, having received its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, and a week before it will close the London Film Festival. From its reviews so far, particular praise has been reserved for Bonham Carter and Fiennes' performances, with the consensus being that this is a vivid and largely faithful adaptation of the source material.

So why does a film that, despite a few unique twists, tells the same story manage to still attract attention? The answer may be that nearly two centuries on from the year where Pip's story is set, Dickens' themes of pride, ambition, obsession and unconditional love perhaps strike a chord with audiences more than they ever did.

Great Expectations screens Saturday October 13th at 9.30pm (Emirates Palace) and Monday October 15th at 1.30pm (Vox 4)