“I wanted to come home. I’d been away much too long and I’d got a lot of bad habits. The worst habit was that I thought I could direct my way out of trouble.” His mega-budgeted 2010 fantasy Prince of Persia: Sands of Time may be the most successful video game adaptation to date, but Hertfordshire-born director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994; Donnie Brasco, 1996) is candid about what he sees as its shortcomings. “I had $250 million to make Prince of Persia, but it’s not and never will be good enough because we never got the script right.”
Trading the compromises of Hollywood for a shoot in London and on the Kent marshes, Newell’s homecoming film is founded on firmer literary footing: Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations – newly adapted for the screen by novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls (One Day, 2011) – has nothing if not a great story.
“I’d been working on Dombey and Son with another writer,” continues Newell. “Now Dombey and Son is thick. It’s a doorstop. Fabulous characters and story, a great novel about Victorian money – but 1000 pages long. Great Expectations is 500 pages so it’s doable, which I’m sure is why it’s done so often. It’s graspable. You can get your hands around it.”
Dickens’s tortuous story of an orphaned blacksmith boy, Pip, who comes into a small fortune via a mysterious benefactor can’t rival his A Christmas Carol in its number of big screen adaptations. But Newell is first to acknowledge that it’s not so far behind. “One thing people say is, ‘My God, do we need another one?’ And the answer to that is, well, not if you don’t think we do. But on the other hand, how many times are you prepared to go and see Hamlet?”
With Great Expectations, the challenge from the competition is less of quantity than of quality: David Lean’s much-loved 1946 version of the novel has long been felt as definitive for its gothic atmosphere and its rogue’s gallery of characters brought colourfully to life.
Was Newell tempted to revisit some of the past adaptations? “I watched them all. I stole from them. Why not? Why not learn? I stole from the best: I stole from David Lean, I stole from a very good English director called Julian Jarrold [who directed a 1999 television version], I stole from Alfonso Cuarón. Proud to do it. Happy to do it.”
Less happy was the moment Newell and his crew discovered that the BBC was planning its own new version of Dickens’s classic for television – broadcast in December 2011. “That wasn’t the best day of our lives. It came as a shock – we didn’t know it was planned. We thought we were the only ones in the race. We thought when they hear that we’re doing it they’ll go away. But obviously they were thinking the same thing, that we would go away. Neither of us did.”
On the big screen, what distinguishes Newell’s film from Lean’s black and white version, or Cuarón’s Southern Gothic spin on the tale, is that same thematic darkness which colours our current crop of superhero films or which brought an increasingly moody taint to the Harry Potter series – including Newell’s own entry, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Far from the Sunday teatime version of Dickens, the new Great Expectations draws out a disturbing story of child abuse and the corrupting power of money.
“I didn’t set out to make a dark or a light film,” Newell explains. “To some extent [dark] is a clichéd term that doesn’t mean enough anymore. I was walking out at the end of David Yates’s Harry Potter that immediately followed mine [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007], and this big bloke with his family shouted over my head, ‘Well they said the last one was dark! But that was rubbish, and this one is really dark and it’s really good!’”
“I wanted it to be about money,” he elaborates, “and about how money screws things up, how it deludes people. That’s very much in our times right now. It’s about abused children as well, and the way that these children get abused is that the adults have in their turn been horribly damaged and they have passed that damage on. The danger is that it passes on and on and on, and you never get free of it. That was something very contemporary as well. I was trying to make a contemporary film in sheep’s clothing.”
Newell’s new take on Pip is daringly unsympathetic, an anti-hero whose character has been misshapen by his maltreatment at the hands of adults. The challenge of navigating this emotional complexity fell to Jeremy Irvine, fresh from his star-making debut in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011). “I loved the way he looked,” says Newell of his young lead. “I could believe him as a country boy. He was very simple, he wasn’t a clever dick. He knits his brows. He’s too serious for his own good, and Pip’s too serious for his own good.”
“He absolutely bit on this central thing in the character, that Pip is prepared to throw away – to betray – all the people who are best for him, all the people who are kindest and most generous towards him.”
Frayed psychological edges also define literature’s most famous jilted bride, the ghoulish Miss Havisham, played in the new film – in some snug-fit casting – by Helena Bonham Carter. “She lives on a very high emotional plane,” Newell says of Carter. “The Italians would call her ‘un’isterica’. She’s a very sweet woman, and we like one another greatly, which is why I can say this.”
“That was obviously a very important part of Miss Havisham’s character,” he continues, “that she should have these hysterical roots. She does not want to move from the time when she might just have been happy. That’s why she doesn’t change the dress, that’s why she leaves the veil on, that’s why she stops the clocks. That’s a hysterical response, 30 or 40 years before Freud famously dealt with hysteria in women.”
So did Great Expectations anticipate Freud? Newell goes on: “In the middle of the [19th] century, you begin to get those stories like Jekyll and Hyde where you know that it isn’t just what you see [on the surface]. They knew that there were two selves, and how the selves link. I’m sure in a way that this is Dickens’s Jekyll and Hyde. [Pip] isn’t a proper, emotional Victorian hero who does right by everybody. He’s treacherous. That’s a psychological question. I think this novel – in a funny sort of way – is Dickens tiptoeing into this great unknown.”