There's a reason why Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" has inspired at least two dozen films, plays, television shows and literary spinoffs. Charles Dickens' 1861 novel is a rip-roaring yarn, with such great, indelible characters and jaw-dropping dramatic twists that it can survive even contortions on the order of Alfonso Cuarón's strange yet strangely undisastrous 1998 modernization starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The latest adaptation, stylishly directed by Mike Newell, has the good sense not to mess too much with the source material. For those coming into this fresh, "Great Expectations" is the tale of Pip, an orphan who lives in near squalor with his abusive older sister (Sally Hawkins) and her gently avuncular blacksmith husband (Jason Flemyng). Pip is first played, as a boy, by Toby Irvine, and later, as a young man, by the actor's older brother, Jeremy Irvine. Not only is their resemblance striking, but each of them can truly act.
After an opening scene in which young Pip meets, and shows kindness to, the escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) -- a man who will figure prominently -- the film briskly goes about establishing the other central relationships in Pip's life. First, there's his protege relationship with the eccentric Miss Havisham (a delightful Helena Bonham Carter), a wealthy spinster who takes Pip under her wing. Next comes Pip's friendship with Havisham's adopted daughter, Estella (Helena Barlow plays her as a child and Holliday Grainger as an adult). Pip falls immediately and permanently in love with Estella, though she doesn't reciprocate.
Like any work inspired by Dickens, the film rides on the backs of its large and colorful cast of characters, brought to life by some of England's finest actors. What they're carrying is heavy, and not just because it's a classic. Is this "Great Expectations" indispensable? Maybe not. But it's lovely to see the sensitivity and respect with which Newell and Nicholls attempt to renew not just Dickens' well-worn protagonists, but his equally enduring themes.
PLOT Orphan Pip becomes a gentleman thanks to an unknown benefactor.
RATING PG-13 (some violence including disturbing images)
CAST Jeremy Irvine, Toby Irvine, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter
BOTTOM LINE Dickens' masterpiece gets masterful treatment.