“Why is Pip such a little s**t?” It may not have been the title of your English essays back at school, but the answer provides the basis upon which director Mike Newell based his big-screen adaptation of Dickens classic Great Expectations (out in cinemas on Friday 30 November).
“That was a transformation moment,” explains Newell, “because he is. He’s very hard done by, he’s brutalised, but nonetheless he’s horrible. He isn’t a proper emotional Victorian hero who does right by everyone – he’s treacherous.
“I think it’s a psychological question and I think the novel – in a funny sort of way – is Dickens tiptoeing into the great unknown… You’re beginning to get in the middle of the [19th] century these stories like Jekyll and Hyde which know that it isn’t just what you see – they know that there are two selves and I’m sure, in a way, that this is Dickens’ Jekyll and Hyde.”
When it came to adapting the latest film based on the much-loved novel, Newell was determined to create a classic Victorian tale that remained relevant to its 21st century audience. “I was trying to make a contemporary film in sheep’s clothing. I wasn’t going to change the Dicknensian 19th century part of it, but I did feel that you could bring out the real passions of it.” That transition required one crucial element…
“I wanted it to be sexually hot, I wanted them to desire one another, I wanted it to be erotic. In their heads – I couldn’t do anything about that on the screen, that would have been unthinkable. You can’t do that; it just shocks people too much. But I did want people to be made aware that there was lust in this story, that it wasn’t just love.”
The first step towards generating that lust was to cast two leading actors who exude sexual chemistry. Newell opted for War Horse actor Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger.
“I loved the way Jeremy looked because he was dark and a lot of traditional Dickens heroes are blonde. I liked his looks and I could believe him as a country boy – he was vey simple. Not a clever dick – I’m a clever dick enough for a whole cast of actors.
“Jeremy’s too serious for his own good and Pip’s too serious for his own good as well. And 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 and most loving towards him. Jeremy absolutely got that – he knew all about it and that was a very big thing in casting him.”
Whilst on set the director of 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was reunited with his former cast – Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane and Ralph Fiennes. But what about the criticism from reviewers that Helena has embarked upon the role of Miss Havisham too early – that she’s taken on the part she was made to play a few years ahead of full maturity?
“She’s the same age as Martita Hunt who plays her in the David Lean version,” counters Newell. “Exactly the same age. It’s simply that she has flawless skin – the most beautiful skin.
“Helena’s a very sweet woman and we like one another greatly which is why I can say this: she lives on a very high emotional plane – Italians would call her ‘la isterico’ – and that was obviously a very important part of Miss Havisham’s character. That she should have hysterical roots. She does not want to move from the time when she might just have been happy. So that’s why she doesn’t change the dress, that’s why she leaves the veil on, that’s why she stops the clocks. Any minute he’s going to come through that door and say sorry he was delayed but shall we pop off to the church now?
“The fact of it being an hysterical response – 30-40 years before Freud who famously dealt with hysteria in women – was really interesting to me.”
Great Expectations is released in UK cinemas on Friday 30 November