Tag: Mike Newell

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Hell is other people in this Satresque version of the life of Ruth Ellis

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Miranda Richardson (Ruth Ellis), Rupert Everett (David Blakely), Ian Holm (Desmond Cussen), Stratford Johns (Morrie Conley), Joanne Whalley (Christine), Tom Chadbon (Antony Findlater), Jane Bertish (Carole Findlater), David Troughton (Cliff Davis)

Hell is other people. Dance with a Stranger is the tragic story of how Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson in an electrifying screen debut) became the last woman hung for murder in Britain. But it’s also a terrible Satre-like tale of three people stuck a destructive cycle, loathing each other but unable to imagine their lives apart. Ellis is fanatically, obsessively in love with feckless David Blakely (Rupert Everett) who blows hot and cold on her and is nowhere near consistent in his feelings as middle-aged Desmond Cussen (Ian Holm), s so besotted with Ruth (who treats him like a benevolent uncle) that he drives her to her assignations and pays rent on the apartment where she sleeps with Blakely.

All three cause each other immeasurable harm in Newell’s cool, bleak, well-made true-crime story that is far less interested in the moments of violence and retribution, than the sad and sorry cycle that leads to them. Tellingly, we never see a single moment of the trial or punishment of Ruth and the film effectively concludes in long-shot as we watch the fatal shooting of Blakely from afar. But who needs the close-up of this inevitable ending, when we’ve had front row seats to the catastrophic relationships that led up to it.

Like many British films, it’s at least partly about class. In 1950s London, we’re still on the cusp of the sort of cultural levelling out of the 1960s. This is a post-war, Agatha-Christie-like London. Blakely and his friends are Waughish Bright Young Things, living on Trust Funds and driving racing cars for fun. Their evenings are spent in drinking clubs aiming for glamour, staffed by those yearning to jump up a notch on the ladder like Ruth Ellis. Such women are of course for dalliances (and casual screws) not for marrying. Ruth’s back-up lover Desmond is an RAF-veteran who misses the war, an overgrown besotted schoolboy and middle-aged bachelor who accepts he is only worth other men’s cast offs.

Blakely’s friends encourage him to mess Ruth around because she’s a working-class strumpet. Ruth is at least partly willing to forgive him because marriage could lift her once and for all out of the working classes. Desmond is of less-interest, because a loveless middle-class marriage of sexual duty simply isn’t as attractive. Neither does Ruth love – or lust after – him the way she does the dynamic, sexy, little-boy-lost Blakely. A man she finds herself so uncontrollably drawn to that, no matter what he does – not turn up, mock her in front of his friends, push her down the stairs or punch her in the face in public – she comes crawling back. Often with Desmond in helpless tow, ignoring his adoration while demanding he drive her to another confrontation with the selfish Blakely.

Dance with a Stranger finds intense sympathy, to various degrees, with all three of its leads. But most strongly it turns Ruth Ellis, who could be a historical statistic, into a figure of real tragedy. Richardson is superb as a woman who is confident, assertive – even arrogantly dismissive – in so many areas of her life except one: her compulsive, obsessive and destructive love for Blakely. Dance with a Stranger charts effectively her mental collapse: from a woman who flirts confidently in a bar, to a quivering, weeping mess standing in the streets staring up at her lover’s window, screaming abuse, smashing up cars and babbling incoherently and inconsolably.

The film charts the same deadly cycle, showing Blakely’s ill-treatment and selfishness having ever more deadly impact on Ruth’s mental well-being. In it all, Blakely isn’t always malicious, more immature and easily led. Everett’s performance is perfect at capturing this playboy easiness under a fundamentally weak personality, a man who has been handed everything on a plate and is unable to respond in any adult way to Ruth’s love for him. Nevertheless, his stroppy behaviour gets her fired from her job and his behaviour fluctuates from gifts of framed pictures and promises of devotion, alternate with angry outbursts and emotional and physical violence.

And Desmond Cussen picks up the pieces time and again. Ian Holm is wonderful as this hen-pecked sadomasochist, impotent and all-too willing to debase himself, hurt time and again by seeing Ruth returning time and again to the dismissive Blakely. Holm makes Cussen small, weak, moody and frequently pathetic. He limply follows where she leads and suffers with weary, besotted patience every one of her preoccupied complaints against Blakely. This is man who almost sado-masochistically puts himself in painful situations, can’t be angry with Ruth for more than a few minutes and gets into impotent scuffles with Blakely outside pubs.

But it’s also Cussen who has the gun – and the film at least suggests the possibility that his openness about its location might well have been a factor in Ruth’s later decision to use it. The killing is, deliberately, the least interesting part of the film. What matters is the mental state that led Ruth to this killing. The self-delusion and desperation to believe that she could form a relationship with Blakely, the same obsessive blind-spot that leads to her closing the film writing a condolence letter to Blakely’s mother. Ruth is a victim here as much as him (perhaps more?) a mis-used woman who cannot give Cussen what he wants and can never get what she needs from Blakely.

Newell’s direction is sharp and sensitive and while the film’s cycle of destructive behaviour – Blakely and Ruth row, break-up, Cussen picks up some pieces, rince and repeat – can become overwhelming, it is partly the intention. And it cements the feeling for the audience of being as much trapped in this hell as everyone else. Holm is superb, Everett perfectly cast but Richardson is mesmeric as Ruth, vivid, vibrant, vivacious, vulnerable and victimised in a film that goes a long way to humanise the suffering behind what seem open-and-shut cases.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Will Lily James and Michiel Huisman find true love in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? You have one guess.

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Lily James (Juliet Ashton), Michiel Huisman (Dawsey Adams), Glen Powell (Mark Reynolds), Jessica Brown Findlay (Elizabeth McKenna), Katherine Parkinson (Isola Pribby), Matthew Goode (Sidney Stark), Tom Courtenay (Eben Ramsey), Penelope Wilton (Amelia Maugery)

Every so often I get challenged to write a really short review. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the sort of film where I could almost write a review that was shorter than the film’s title. Look at the poster – everything you are now expecting from this movie, it completely delivers. It’s as warm, unthreatening, comfortable and familiar as Sunday dinner at your Gran’s.

In 1948, novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – so winning you overlook the fact that she’s clearly too young for the part) receives a chance letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a farmer in Guernsey. Adams tells her about the book club that sprang up between himself and other islanders during Guernsey’s occupation by the Nazis, where reading books gave them a chance to escape the horrors of the occupation. Leaving her slightly put-out American fiancée (Mark Reynolds) in London (one guess as to what romantic pairing we’ll end the film with, by the way) she heads to Guernsey to meet the group and write an article about them – and finds herself swept up in a mystery around missing member of the club Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findley). 

It’s a film that virtually writes itself, the sort of predictable Sunday-afternoon, British film where the 1940s look impossibly glamourous and everything turns out wonderfully happily in the end. You won’t be challenged by anything in it, you can simply sit back and enjoy it. Everyone involved in the film does clearly understand what they are making here though: it’s light, fluffy and unchallenging but it’s professionally made and everyone gives it their all.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how much the film is pitching for the Downton Abbey audience that it has no fewer than four actors from that show in key roles. Lily James is radiant and charismatic as Juliet – sweetly earnest and also with a determination to wrestle out a truth once she senses a story. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that she is going to be won away from her dull Yankee pilot (Glen Powell in a totally thankless role of blandness) by the earthy, romantic, caring and intellectually stimulating charm of Game of Thrones’ Dario Naaheris, Michiel Huisman (the sort of role an actor can play standing on his head but he’s still very good).

Penelope Wilton does some good work as a widow clinging to happier memories that she can’t bear to see affected by harsher truths. Jessica Brown Findley has little to do, but to be honest it’s not a problem as the part is such a straight re-tread of her Lady Sybil role from Downton she could probably do it in her sleep. The last Downton alumnus, Matthew Goode, is rather funny as Juliet’s sweet but good-naturedly exasperated publisher. For the rest of the cast, Katherine Parkinson oscillates between comic timidity and soulful sensitivity and Tom Courtenay gives a playful old man performance which can’t have stretched him.

Not being stretched is what the film is all about. Even the mystery at the film’s centre isn’t particularly gripping or – even when the truth is revealed – something that really has much impact on anything. And it’s hardly the focus anyway. It’s really a film that wants you to enjoy the photography and landscapes, and to root for the two leads to fall in love with each other. It wants you to feel little else, and carefully avoids getting you to invest your emotions in other aspects of the story so you can’t get upset. It’s the sort of film that you could call “lovely”, that passes an hour or two perfectly well, and at the end of it you’ll tell people it was fine. Then you’ll never think about it again. Ever.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Our heroes face an increasingly dark future in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (“Mad-Eye” Moody), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Robert Pattinson (Cedric Diggory), David Tennant (Barty Crouch Jnr), Jeff Rawle (Amos Diggory), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Roger Lloyd Pack (Barty Crouch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour)

After Alfonso Cuarón announced he would only direct one Harry Potter film, the producers faced a stiff challenge. The third Harry Potter film had been the best so far, and elevated both the acting and design into a far more filmic, epic position than before. Could Mike Newell match this in Goblet of Fire? Sure he could.

If nothing else, Goblet of Fire is a triumph of adaptation. Used to the page-to-screen translations of the earlier films, it was expected that the film would be split into two parts. Instead Newell and screen-writer Steven Kloves turned Rowling’s huge fourth book into a tightly structured and focused film that places Harry’s emotional journey firmly at its centre, and includes only the things that support the building of that story. 

Goblet of Fire is a film of fascinating contrasts. In fact, it’s probably the lightest, most ‘teenage’ of the films, while also containing a dark final chapter and more death than we’ve had so far in the series. But this film is actually rather funny and allows its characters to focus on the challenges and stresses of growing up, with only a few flashes of danger and darkness – before they get wrapped up in the battle against Voldemort that will dominate the next few films.

So this is the film where we get crushes, where Harry and Ron struggle to get dates for the ball, where we get a sense of Hermione not only growing up – but growing in confidence. Harry develops a hopeless crush on Cho Chang – his “Willyougotoballwithme” hurried date proposal is all too familiar to most men, as is his “oh no never mind not a problem” when she (reluctantly) says no. Meanwhile, Ron struggles to understand his own hormonal feelings towards Hermione. It’s all well done and very funny. The ball itself is a highlight of teenage awkwardness, as well as genuinely feeling like a teenage party (including a sort of wizarding mosh pit). 

This teenage awkwardness carries across into Harry’s involvement in the Tri-wizard Tournament, a series of stirring set-pieces against dragons, mer-people and a wicked ever-shifting maze. The tournament offers a range of puzzles Harry needs to solve – more than enough opportunity to allow other characters to get involved. Neville Longbottom particularly moves to the fore for the first time – not only embracing dancing (hilariously nearly every boy is as embarrassed by it as you might expect) and landing a date, but also using his knowledge of plants to help Harry, and we get increased insight into his own tragic backstory. It’s great to see Matthew Lewis being able to stretch himself – and show the roots of the good young actor he’s become.

The film spends a lot of time on family roots, both tragic and happy, in particular fathers and sons. We have no fewer than four father/son match-ups in these films, and each gives us a slightly different perspective on family relationships. Mark Williams’ matey but loving Arthur Weasley gets more screen time than ever before, and Williams develops him into a protective but warm patriarch. Contrast that with the troubled coldness the Crouches show each other – and the swift speed with which Barty Crouch denounces his own son. We get a glimpse of the sort of father Harry could have had with a brief ghost appearance of Harry’s parents. The strongest father-and-son relationship we get to see is that between the Diggorys, an immeasurably proud father and a perfect son.

Mentioning Amos Diggory means we have to bring up one of the most extraordinary acting cameos in the entire series: Jeff Rawle’s work here is brilliant. Is there a more moving moment in the franchise than his uncontrollable grief when Cedric is killed? His anguished crying of “That’s my boy” will haunt many a viewer for years to come. It’s a measure of the brilliance Mike Newell had with actors, and the shrewdness of the casting throughout. Would anyone else have thought of George Dent from Drop the Dead Donkey for this King Lear-like cameo? Would anyone else have thought of Trigger as strict disciplinarian, Barty Crouch (Roger Lloyd-Pack is terrific). The film also shrewdly cast David Tennant about five minutes before he became one of the most popular actors in the country, for an excellent malevolent cameo of pride and bitterness.

The acting throughout is terrific – Mike Newell has the reputation of an actor’s director, and he really shows it here. The three leads are no longer children but teenagers, and they feel like it. Radcliffe plays Harry with increasing maturity and emotional depth, balancing with nuance and quiet confidence the light comedy of Harry’s hormonal yearnings, his fear during the tournament, and his terror and resolve during the confrontation with Voldemort. It’s quite a range he has to go through here, and this features his best performance so far.

Similarly, Grint increases his comedic range with a sullen, teenage I-don’t-want-to-admit-I’m-interested-in-girls series of exchanges. Watson demonstrates her obvious chemistry with both her co-stars, and also does a great job of showing Hermione’s growing emotional maturity and confidence. Many of the other regulars continue to do great work, with Gambon really settling into this role of Dumbledore (although his fury when Harry’s name emerges from the Tri-wizard cup seems strangely out of character). 

The new cast members as always offer plenty. Miranda Richardson delivers a lot of comic flourishes, and snappy media pot-stirring, as gossip columnist Rita Skeeter. Brendan Gleeson carries all the charisma you would expect as a maverick, perhaps even unbalanced Mad-Eyed Moody. In a further testament to the excellent casting directors here, Robert Pattinson (five minutes before his fame exploded) is very good as a suave, handsome, slightly cocky but charming Cedric Diggory.

The film though is building towards its surprising gear-change late in the story – and the introduction of Voldemort, murder and death into a film that until now has been an engaging and amusing action film and teenage comedy. Perfect casting for Voldemort was secured with Ralph Fiennes. Of course Fiennes could play Voldemort standing on his head, but his softly-spoken suaveness and patrician charm is absolutely perfect for the role. You really get a sense of ice running through his blood, and his cold cruelty and arrogance. Fiennes is pretty much iconic in this role. 

The final sequence itself is brilliantly done, a thrilling and terrifying sequence, which really hammers home the extent of Harry’s powerlessness and vulnerability – while the brutal, instant dispatching of Cedric immediately changes the ball game for the rest of the series. The scene is brilliantly shot with a series of blacks and greens for mood and offers a sensational conclusion, as well as an expertly shot duel between Harry and Voldemort that established the filmic language for all subsequent duels that were to come.

Goblet of Fire is another example after Prisoner of Azkaban of a great piece of franchise film-making. It’s not quite as stand-alone, or as perfectly dramatically formed, as the previous film – but that’s because this one ends, like none of the other films before, on a cliffhanger. For the first time, this series wasn’t offering an opponent and obstacle that could be overcome and left behind at the end of the film. Here the baddies win – and the feeling going forward is that, with the help of friends and family, we can battle the evil, but it will still be there. It’s an engaging, funny and very well-structured film, packed with decent twists, and ends with a humdinger of a scene in a film that has already had plenty of excellent moments. Harry Potter is surely one of the best franchises there is.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Pacino and Depp deliver low-key, carefully controlled, sensitive performances: how often do you get to write that?

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano), Bruno Kirby (Nicky Santora), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), James Russo (“Paulie” Cersani), Željko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford), Robert Miano (Al “Sonny Red” Indelicato), Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti (FBI Technicians)

The Mafia film genre is a crowded market, so it’s a brave film maker who enters it with something a little different. But we get that with Donnie Brasco, which focuses on the bottom rungs of the Mafia ladder, suggesting that being a low-ranking member of “this thing of ours” is in many ways quite similar to being a corporate drone in the big city, only with more killing.

Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New York Mafia. He wins the trust of “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Mafia hitman. Drawn deeper into the Mafia world, the pressure builds on Pistone/Brasco, who slowly becomes more and more indistinguishable from the criminals he spends his time with – and feels guilty about the deadly fate Lefty will meet if the Mafia discover he inadvertently introduced a rat into the family.

Newell’s film (from Paul Attanasio’s excellent script) is a dry deconstruction of the gangster life, bringing it closer to the grind of the 9-5. The criminals put in long hours to earn the income they need to push up to those above them. Class distinctions abound – in one scene, Sonny Black (a good performance of ambition and resentment from Michael Madsen) forces a smile onto his face while mob bosses laugh openly at his dress sense. Lefty whines like a mule about everything from his lack of recognition to how put-upon he is (never has a mantra about 26 hits over a lifetime sounded more like complaints about constant filing requests). He could easily be mistaken half the time for a harrassed office junior who never made the grade. When violence comes, it’s sudden, graphic, confused and brutal – a hit in a basement goes far from smoothly with one victim struggling for his life while another screams in pain.

On the other hand, the gangsters are also suggested to be maladjusted teens who never grew up. The more time Donnie spends with them, the less and less capable he becomes of relating to (or even communicating with) his wife and family. The gangsters have a routine lack of empathy for each other and treat the rules of “our thing” like a boys’ clubhouse. Many of their actions have an ill-thought-out juvenility to them: Sonny at one point steals a lion for Lefty as a gift – in a bizarre scene immediately afterwards, Lefty and Donnie feed it hamburgers through the window while it sits in the back seat of Donnie’s car. On a work-trip in Florida, the gangsters behave like kids – mucking around in the pool, delightedly going down waterflumes, burying Lefty in the sand on the beach while he sleeps. Even Lefty is overcome like a star-struck teen when meeting a famed Florida boss.

It’s not surprising that Donnie and Lefty, both outsiders in a way, are drawn together as kindred spirits in this strange, unbalanced world. Donnie obviously is an FBI agent, but Lefty is a world-weary old-timer, with a sense of honour who seems (apart from his ease with killing and violence) to be the most “normal” of the gangsters. The film is a careful construction of the growth of loyalty between these characters – particularly the slow development of Donnie’s feelings of genuine friendship towards Lefty. What’s effective is that this is a gradual process without a definable key moment. Instead, it becomes rather touching as Donnie starts to avoid moving closer to better “contacts” in order to remain close to Lefty. Donnie Brasco might be one of the few films that really gets a type of male friendship, and the unspoken emotional bonds that underpin them.

Perhaps the best things about Donnie Brasco are the two wonderful performances we get from actors who never knowlingly underplay. Watching this and Ed Wood is a reminder of the actor Johnny Depp could have been, before clowning in Pirates of the Caribbean seemed to shatter his focus. Brasco/Pistone is a brilliantly low-key presentation of a fractured personality. At first, the differentiation between the two personalities is distinct and clear – but as the film progresses, Depp allows the two to almost c/ollapse into each other. Everything from his body language to his manner of speaking slowly repositions itself as he becomes more consumed by the gangster world. Depp is also very good at not losing track of Pistone’s horror at murder and violence, while allowing the Brasco persona to take part in its aftereffects. The quiet building of guilt in his eyes at the fate he is creating for Lefty is also gently underplayed, making it more effective.

However, this is Al Pacino’s movie. It’s certainly Pacino’s last great performance: with the added frisson that he’s Michael Corleone demoted to the bottom rung of the ladder, Pacino is magnetic. Lefty is a put-upon whiner, who still has a charisma of his youth that draws Donnie (and others) in. A man of strong moral principles, who treats Donnie with a fatherly regard, uncomfortable with much of the ostentation of his fellow gangsters, he’s also a ruthless killer who blithely shrugs off his killing of an old friend. All Pacino’s bombast is only rarely deployed for impact – instead Lefty is a low-key, almost sad figure, whose chance in life has passed by.

One extraordinary scene late on deserves particular mention. I won’t spoil things too much, but Lefty prepares to leave the house after a phone call full of bad news. Carefully, sadly, he smartens himself up then returns (after saying goodbye to his wife) to gently remove his valuables and leave them in a drawer for his wife – he even carefully leaves the drawer ajar so she can find it. Setting himself before leaving the house, he takes a small look around. It’s a beautifully gentle scene, which could be overloaded with meaning from another actor, but Pacino plays it with such quiet but intense focus, and such careful precision it works brilliantly. Take a look at the scene here (warning spoilers!)

Newell’s strength as an actor’s director is apparent in all the performances, and Donnie Brasco is a film of many wonderful scenes and moments. The film never loses track of the danger of undercover heart – and several striking scenes have Pistone close to being discovered. The film is not perfect: the aim of the FBI investigation, and the impact Donnie’s work are never really made clear and the scenes involving Pistone’s homelife feel far more predictable and conventional than the rest of the movie (Anne Heche has a thankless part). But when it focuses on the two leads, and their dynamism together, it’s a damn fine film. It’s not going to challenge Goodfellas as a story of low-key hoods, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to cinema’s mafia films.

Great Expectations (2012)

Ralph Fiennes is ‘Ungry

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Jeremy Irvine (Pip), Holliday Grainger (Estella), Helena Bonham-Carter (Miss Havisham), Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch), Robbie Coltrane (Jaggers), Jason Flemyng (Joe Gargery), Ewen Bremner (Wemmick), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Joe), David Walliams (Pumblechook), Tamzin Outhwaite (Molly), Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Bentley Drummle)

There is one major problem with Mike Newell and screenwriter David Nicholl’s faithful adaptation of Great Expectations, one of Charles Dickens’ best loved novels. It’s such a faithful adaptation that it largely fails to say or do anything unique or interesting with the actual source material itself. Thus it basically joins the parade of adaptations of this novel on film, struggling to define itself from the competition.

For those who don’t know the story: young Pip has two defining encounters in his childhood. One is with escaped convict Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), to whom he provides some help; the other with eccentric, secluded spinster Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham-Carter), who brings him in as a playfellow for her ward, Estella. As a young man, Pip (Jeremy Irvine) finds himself coming into “great expectations” from a mysterious benefactor, and moves to London where he encounters Estella (Holliday Grainger) once more.

Nicholl’s screenplay is a careful ticking off of all the events you would expect to see from either the book or previous versions: “I’m hungry boy”? Check. Mrs Joe? Check. Boxing with young Herbert Pocket? Check. Jaggers and Molly? Check. Wemmick, the Aged P and the cannon? Check. Bentley Drummle? Check. Joe Gargery in London? Check. Fire? Check. And so on, and so on. What’s really missing from the film is any sense of identity, any sense of a story it wishes to tell, or angle it wants to take on the source material. Instead it’s a picture book accompaniment to the novel. A beautifully filmed one, I will say (John Mathieson’s photography is lavishly good, and brilliantly captures the wide-open spaciousness of Kent compared to the dank, claustrophobic confines of London) but still a picture book.

It’s also decently acted throughout, with Jason Flemyng a stand-out as a decent, kind and loveable Joe (a part I think it’s almost impossible to fail in). Robbie Coltrane makes Jaggers a creepy charmer. Helena Bonham-Carter is, as one reviewer said, “almost too perfect casting” as Miss Havisham – her performance is a bit too familiar as a remix of her parts in Tim Burton films and Bellatrix Lastrange – but she is still very good in this role.

The closest the film gets to putting a twist on the novel is to front and centre the love-story angle between Pip and Estella. Even this, though, is not completely successful, largely due to time. Irvine and Grainger are fine performers (Grainger in particular does an awful lot with what can’t be more than 10-15 minutes of screentime), but adult Pip and Estella don’t have a scene together until halfway through the film. The film also is reluctant to lose anything major from the Gargery or Magwitch plotlines, meaning these get equal weighting with the Estella scenes. It’s possibly the only area where this adaptation is weaker than the BBC adaptation of a few years later, which effectively repositioned the story with a focus on father-son relationships, adding greater prominence to the Pip-Gargery-Magwitch relationships.

Mentioning that BBC adaptation makes a key point about the lack of individuality this production has. Casting my mind back to it, I found it very hard to remember or distinguish the differences between the two – both looked very similar, took similar decisions and featured similar casts. In fact, it became very hard to remember who was in what – an internet search for images for this film throws up plenty of images of Douglas Booth from the mini-series. It’s a small point, but I think captures the lack of uniqueness about this film.

I’ve been very hard on this film, which I feel a bit bad about as it is a very watchable and loyal adaptation and a perfect entry point for Dickens. It also has, in Ralph Fiennes, one superb performance. Of all the versions of Magwitch on screen, this surely has to be the best. Fiennes has the physicality and danger the role needs, but he also has an ethereal, almost child-like quality to him. You can believe this is a dangerous man, but also understand how he can be so passive and easily led. Fiennes’ Magwich takes a delight in the seeing the pleasures of others and has a sweet dedication to his own codes of loyalty. It’s a terrific performance – and actually emerges as the one unique and defining thing the film has to offer.