Film Reviews

Great Expectations & Performance

Published March 16, 2013

In making the umpteenth version of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, British director, Mike Newell, resisted doing something ‘bold and audacious’ just for the novelty value. So far, so good, because the greatest crimes against the classics are committed when directors allow the preoccupations of our own age to disfigure those stories that have become part of a common literary culture.
Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina was a lesson in how badly things can go wrong when the need to present a brave new vision of a classic story outstrips one’s respect for the text. Anna Karenina was not simply a reimagining of Tolstoy’s novel, it was a parody, made by a director who displayed very little understanding of the author. It often gave the impression that Wright held Tolstoy in contempt.
It should be obvious that the reason some stories become classics is because they speak to each new generation of readers with the same freshness and relevance. A true classic is always contemporary – it doesn’t require a radical overhaul.
Having said that, one wonders exactly how many times does a classic need to be filmed and re-filmed? Mike Newell’s Great Expectations sticks pretty closely to Dickens’s story, while also showing the influence of David Lean’s famous adaptation of 1946. The opening sequence, for instance, is almost a duplicate of the first few minutes of Lean’s movie, and there are numerous other echoes.
Over the past century it would be hard to nominate a story that has been more comprehensively picked over than Great Expectations. It was first filmed in 1917, and has rarely been off the producers’ books. The BBC made it into a 13-part serial in 1959, and a 10-part version in 1967. New serial versions followed in 1980 and 1987, while Alfonso Cuarón updated the story for a contemporary New York setting in 1998…  and this is only a list of highights.
In 2011 the BBC produced yet another three-part adaptation, which was recently screened on Australian TV. With the BBC series so fresh in viewers’ minds it would have required an amazing effort to create a better, more memorable version in a two-hour format. That effort is nowhere to be found in Newell’s film. His Great Expectations is respectful to the spirit of the book but pedestrian in its approach.
Some of the castings, notably Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch the convict have been rightly questioned. Carter, who now makes a career out of acting the loon, is eccentric enough to play the aged, disppointed bride, but far too vital and healthy-looking, even under the pancake make-up. One cannot imagine this incarnation of Miss Havisham wasting away in seclusion for decades.
So too with Ralph Fiennes, who has to stand comparison with the hulking Finlay Currie in David Lean’s production. Currie was so good as Magwitch it is difficult to imagine Fiennes filling his shoes, no matter how well-tuned his skills as a character actor.
But the chief disappointment is Jeremy Irvine, last seen in Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse (2011), who takes the central role of Pip. In the novel the entire story is narrated by Pip. We see everything through his eyes and absorb his wordy, sardonic descriptions of the other characters. He has to have a certain spark, yet Irvine is merely handsome and bland. In the 1946 film the young John Mills, with his perpetually startled expression, was a far more engaging Pip. Mills was nervy and energetic whereas Irvine’s Pip is the sulky type.
Newell’s Great Expectations is also lacking in atmosphere. He dispenses with much of the rollicking nonsense that directors love to stuff into their Dickens adaptations, but doesn’t find a way of photographing the marshes, the London slums or Miss Havisham’s decaying mansion so we feel the menace and mystery of the landscape; the squalor of the streets, and the Gothic strangeness of the old house. The camera never lingers long enough to let us get the feel of any particular setting, which is arguably the main element the cinema can add to Dickens’s garrulous style.
Instead, we move on briskly, from one episode to the next, forfeiting colour for continuity. One of the dangers of filming such a familiar story is that viewers begin ticking off each scene, noting the omissions, additions and changes. Wemmick’s castle and the aged P get a run in this new version, although they are frequently left out. Newell follows Lean in omitting the character of Orlick, and the attending subplot, although he was included in the recent BBC series. Instead of meeting the loathsome Drummle in Matthew Pocket’s classes, he and Pip are thrown together at a boisterous young men’s club.
The list of variations could be extended a long way, but this process feels more like accountancy than criticism. Compared with the 1946 film which serves as its major precursor, Newell’s adaptation is short on romance and drama. One thinks of Lean’s glorious black-and-white shots of the swamplands and the deep, dark staircase in Miss Havisham’s house. These shots have an Expressionist dimension, reminiscent of the work of directors such as F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer.
The powerful symbolism Lean employed in Pip’s final encounter with Miss Havisham has set a standard that can hardly be bettered.
None of this is matched by Newell, who made his mark as a director of television dramas before graduating to the big screen with films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Donnie Brasco (1997). In taking on the monumental feat of Great Expectations, he has gone back into television mode, not to make a series but a brisk, competent rendition of a story that deserves a bigger treatment. If you’ll pardon the expression, this is a movie best approached with diminished expectations.
It’s a different story with Performance, a tightly-knit drama about a string quartet facing a raft of personal crises on the eve of their 25th anniversary. The film is a tremendously assured first feature by director, Yaron Zilberman, who also co-authored the script. In the United States it was released as A Late Quartet – a more evocative title which eliminates any confusion with the Nic Roeg cult film of 1970, which provided Mick Jagger with one of his few starring roles.
The  problems begin when the cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), begins to develop the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. At this time, with the prospect of changes being forced on the group, second violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decides that he wants to alternate the role of first violin with Daniel (Mark Ivanir). This is unacceptable to both Daniel, and to the violist, Juliette (Catherine keener) who also happens to be Robert’s wife.
This may sound like an arcane dispute among musicians, but it is not a trivial matter. After 25 years, during which they have risen to the peak of their profession, a carefully wrought structure has been established. Putting individual talent to one side, the basis of good musicianship is discipline and constant practise. To remain together for so long has meant group members have had to subdue their egos and ambitions, learning to work in tandem. Suddenly, everything is falling to pieces – not just Peter’s health, but Robert and Juliette’s marriage.
To add an extra layer of complication, the steely Daniel is falling for Robert and Juliette’s beautiful young daughter, Alex (Imogen Poots), whom he mentors on the violin. As the relationship develops we realise that in the past there was also something between Juliette and Daniel. Alex’s infatuation is partly a way of getting revenge on a mother who neglected her child for the demands of a musical career. Meanwhile, Robert feels unloved and conspired against, and puts his marriage on the line.
It may be a soap opera but there has never been another soapie that used Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, in C Sharp Minor, Opus 131, as a leitmotif that illuminates all the rivalries, attractions and tensions among characters. Beethoven himself saw this piece as his finest string quartet. It has no fewer than seven movements which are required to be played with either no break, or as small a break as possible. The version we hear is played by the Brentano Quartet.
Many commentators talk about the “profundity” of Beethoven’s music, which may seem a strange word to use in connection with an activity that addresses itself primarily to the ear and the nervous system. This film brings such an idea to life, showing the different ways that each character relates to the music. Indeed, Opus 131 is almost a character in its own right – making demands on each player, forcing them into painful decisions and sacrifices. We feel the intelligence in this music and the power it exerts on the musicians. We realise the sheer physical and mental effort required to play this piece well.
Zilberman’s story gets under the skin of the classical musician’s life in a way that few films can match. We are so accustomed to seeing musicians portrayed as heroic figures (let’s not mention Ken Russell!) it is almost a shock to see them revealed as mere mortals – flawed, insecure, stubborn and dedicated. The acting and script are first class, and the ending is close to perfect as anything I’ve seen this year.
Performance has plenty of openings for melodrama but Zilberman resists the temptation. Like Beethoven’s music, the emotions expressed are powerful but never simply black-and-white. I imagine that many viewers, like me, succumbed to the temptation to go straight home and put Opus 131 on the stereo.

Great Expectations, UK/USA, rated M, 129 mins
Performance, USA, rated M, 106 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 16, 2013