Besides its cast, a parade of Brit aces the likes of which we haven't seen since the last episode of Wizard Boy Has a Sad, the quality that most distinguishes Mike Newell's adaptation of the best-titled of all English novels is its healthy fullness. In the decades since David Lean's definitive film, one of those rare cases of genius adapting genius, Great Expectations has again and again been given something like a greatest hits treatment: criminal on the marsh, playtime at Miss Havisham's, the rotted-through wedding finery, the little girl whose heart is ice, "I say, it's grand to be a gentleman, mysterious benefactor!" Those scenes are grand here, too, but Newell subsumes them into the fuller story, emphasizing character and feeling, never getting caught up in that plummy puddings-and-corsets Christmastide pageantry that strangles so many takes on Dickens. He finds the vital heart of most scenes and gives us many fine portraits: Robbie Coltrane plays Jaggers, that unknowable lawyer, as a man-made force of nature, the agent through whom the whims of the moneyed become lawful fact; Ben Lloyd-Hughes as the louchest of London's gentlemen class is the perfect demonstration of the destructive pointlessness of Pip's fantasy of being a moneyed, idle fancypants. Then there are the principals. Helena Bonham Carter and the filmmakers approach Miss Havisham not as a brittle septuagenarian but as a brilliant, cruel, scheming, still-alluring woman of means relishing her own theatrical decay -- and the power such Grey Gardens madness gives her over the timid relatives in her orbit. Newell's film doesn't supplant Lean's, of course, but it's the best since, rich in feeling and dark beauty, alive with the superior scenecraft.
Mike NewellHelena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Holliday Grainger, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Hawkins, Ewen Bremner, David Walliams, Sophie RundleCharles DickensStephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, David Faigenblum, Emanuel MichaelMain Street Films