Love and crime in ‘Great Expectations’


Sami Gillette

The movie “Great Expectations,” directed by Mike Newell (2012) is a lovely, poignant adaption of the classic novel by Charles Dickens. Ralph Fiennes plays an intimidating, but later sympathetic Magwitch and Jason Flemyng plays a loveable Joe Gargery. The main character, Pip, played by Jeremy Irvine, is as handsome, earnest and naive as one could hope for and does a convincing job of portraying Pip’s confusing, convoluted journey to win Estella’s heart.

But the characters who steal the show are Miss Havisham, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and her coldly beautiful protégé, Estella (played by Halliday Grainger). Miss Havisham is at times easy to hate, funny, sympathetic and pitiful. Estella remains aloof and calculating, but hints of her need for love and warmth shine through.

While “Great Expectations” is a love story, it is also a study of society and capitalism. This critique can be seen in the relationship between the lawyer Jaggers and his assistant Wemmick. Though the characters are only secondary in film, they serve as important players throughout the novel.

In the novel, both characters refrain from any sentimentality or pleasantness because their jobs focus around the cold reality of the state system. Only by distancing themselves from their personal lives can Jaggers and Wemmick have an unobstructed view of the world and the systems that make it up.

Early in the novel Wemmick reveals this separation through his desire for “portable property,” which is the only thing that can move between the spheres of the private and professional – usually taking the form of money or small material possessions.

By emphasizing the importance of portable property Wemmick seems to be excluding sentimentality, which cannot be disposed of easily like portable property.

Jaggers furthers the importance of sensibility, rather than sentimentality, in the passage when he describes the idea of a “pleasant home” as “poor dreams.” By describing these “dreams” as poor Jaggers suggests that they are burdensome in the realm of his office and, consequently, not worth talking about (393). This aloofness allows them to work within and around the rules of the state and society of Dickens’ London. Only by disguising their personal lives can Jaggers and Wemmick thrive in their positions as servants of the state.

Jaggers tells Pip and Wemmick that “he lived in an atmosphere of evil… [children were] generated in great numbers for certain destruction” (393). In this line a more detailed picture of Dickens’ fictional London is created. There many people’s fates are determined by their circumstances of birth and the social structure, which responds to crime with punishment, rather than promoting the betterment of the individual.

In response to this dreary circumstance of London Jaggers reveals that there “was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved” (393). Estella, the daughter of the criminal Magwitch and Maggie, a murderess, is adopted by Miss Havisham. This change in circumstance as a young child is the only thing that saves Estella from the sad fate experienced by both her biological father and her mother. Through her adoption Estella was able to escape her “destiny” of crime. Yet, the price is high because she is just a toy for the amusement of the rich Miss Havisham.

At the end of the film Estella and Pip are finally in circumstances that will allow them to be together. But rather than a joyous, romantic occasion, both seem weary. Their innocence is lost and life has taken a toll on both of them. Perhaps that is the point. They will find solace in each other, despite society’s flaws and life’s imperfections.