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‘Great Expectations’: Worthy addition to the Dickens film canon

If anyone knows how to translate the works of Charles Dickens to the screen (big or small), it’s the Brits. The latest of these attempts is a handsomely designed, well-acted film adaptation of Dickens’ popular novel “Great Expectations” (Rated PG-13; 128 minutes). Director Mike Newell and screenwriter David Nicholls focus on the major plot points of the well-known story. Their attempts mostly work but at times the film, despite its two-hour-plus length, feels rushed and truncated.

Jeremy Irvine has the right touch of vulnerable charm as Pip, the blacksmith apprentice given a chance to rise in society thanks to a secret benefactor. Getting the story rolling is his graveyard encounter with Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes, feral and menacing), the escaped convict who demands help from a young Pip (played by Irvine’s younger brother Toby).

A wealthy woman, Miss Havisham, maneuvers Pip and her haughty ward Estella (a lovely Holliday Grainger) into a dance of wills. What develops for Pip is a case of unrequited love as Miss Havisham bluntly tells Estella, “You can break his heart.”

Helena Bonham Carter’s conniving Miss Havisham, who years earlier was abandoned at the altar, is not the withered crone of previous film versions. Behind the moldering goth grandeur, Carter, outfitted in a cobwebby wreck of a wedding dress, adds a hint of beauty and regret that makes her dotty mannerisms and plot “to wreak revenge on all the male sex” even more tragic.

The compromises Pip makes and the people he hurts as he attempts to rise in society are at the core of Dickens’ story. But these actions are somewhat downplayed here as Pip searches for his place in the world. Guiding him on his journey are colorful, nicely etched Dickensian characters: Ewan Bremmer as avuncular legal clerk Wemmick, Olly Alexander as Pip’s loyal friend Herbert Pocket and Robbie Coltrane as mercenary London lawyer Jaggers.

In the end, this “Great Expectations” is an absorbing addition to the roster of Dickens films that continues our 21st-century fascination with the worlds created by a 19th-century storyteller.

“Great Expectations” opens Friday at Landmark Renaissance Place, AMC River East and Cinemark Cine Arts. Rating: ★★★

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