TIFF: “Great Expectations” and “Love, Marilyn”

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (***)…It was not so very long ago that a version of this classic novel by Charles Dickens starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert de Niro and Anne Bancroft was in movie theaters. That adaptation was very good, however modernized, with strong performances from the entire cast, and a fine sense of the essence of the book. How many versions of this film have there been? Far too many I think, and yet no one is making a new version of A Tale of Two Cities, in my mind, the greatest novel Dickens ever wrote.  Can you imagine Leonardo di Caprio with Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman in a period version of A Tale of Two Cities? God the possibilities for the film are endless. Alas that film has yet to be made, and instead I sat through another adaptation of Great Expectations, one of his very best novels and a very fine film.

The story is loyal to that in the book, the tale of Pip (Jeremy Irvine) who falls in love with the unattainable Estella (Holliday Grainger) who lives sometimes in the care of the mysterious Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter). Along with meeting Estella, Pip has another encounter that shapes the course of his life, which being his run in with Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes) an escaped criminal who will aid Pip in becoming a gentleman in Victorian England. Pip looks beyond the man’s chains and sees a heart, and the criminal is forever touched, looking deep within the boy and seeing someone unique, someone special. Sadly Pip’s life is a tough education in life, of learning one cannot always have what they desire, and of yearning to be another.

Directed by the ever surprising Mike Newell, the film plunges us into England of the early 19th century, sweeping us from the marshes in the country into the city and then back again. He captures the looks and sounds as described by Dickens but more, he finds the heart at the core of the book. In bringing the essence of Dickens to the forefront, he gives one of the finest adaptations of the book put to film. It is not perfect, but still a worthy and very fine film. The England within the film is alive, bustling with energy, often beautiful, often not, but nonetheless alive and a secondary character in the film.

Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Magwitch, finding the heart in a man who has known only crime for most of his life, needing to do something good, needy to return a kindness to someone who aided him against all their better judgment. Fiennes can be one of our finest actors, and has been in the past in Schindler’s List (1993z), Quiz Show (1994), the Harry Potter films as Voldemort, and more recently The Constant Gardner (2005) in which he was simply brilliant as a devastated husband trying to find out whom, and what killed his beloved wife. I am not sure if he has ever been given enough credit for his horrifying work as Lord Voldemort but his manner of speaking, his body language, and his piercing eyes make the character one of the greatest villains in film history. That was his creation, just as Magwitch is. Equally fine is Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, the batty older woman who never lets Pip forget his place in society. Carter runs hot and cold, and when she is on which is most of the time, she’s superb. However I will never forget her annoying work in Hamlet (1990) opposite Mel Gibson in which each entrance, each moment with her on screen was agonizing. That said, she was been superb in films such as A Room with a View (1986), Howards end (1992), Fight Club (1999) and more recently The King’s Speech (2010). She is terrific here, less mannered than the Bancroft performance, yet still suggesting that the woman is a tad…off.

The reason the film misses being a four star work for me is the relationship and performances of Jeremy Irvine as Pip and Holliday Grainger as Estella. Often I have stated in a love story we must have chemistry between the lovers, there must be a connection we believe, and here there is not. Grainger is quite lovely and we understand why Irvine would fall for her, but at some point don’t you know it is never going to happen? Don’t you get tired of the abuse and being ignored or treated like a second class citizen? Neither actor is strong enough to bring a great deal of depth to the characters, nor perhaps because we know them so well from the page and other adaptations can’t we buy into their work. There are some excellent performances from Robbie Coltrane, Ewen Bremner, and the wonderful Jason Flemyng) as gentle Joe, the blacksmith married to Pip’s abusive sister.

I like Mike Newell’s work. I like that he moves from romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a funeral (1994) to the crime drama Donnie Brasco (1997), on to one of the finest Potter films, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), attempts Love in the Time of cholera (2007) and then goes blockbuster for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (20910) Donnie Brasco (1997) remains his finest film, one of the very few times someone managed to keep Pacino’s volume and histrionics down to a minimum, but there is a great deal to like in this new Dickens adaptation, a great deal indeed.

LOVE, MARILYN (****)…I have read just about everything written about Marilyn Monroe, seen all the films made about her from the very good, last year’s My Week with Marilyn (2011) to the simply wretched, Goodbye Norma Jean (1976), and of course seen all of her films. She is referenced and discussed in the autobiographies and biographies of Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Clark Gable, Billy Wilder, and John Huston. I have heard it said the greatest performance of her career was convincing the world she was Marilyn Monroe, and that is likely very true. As an actress she was limited in her ability but willing to evolve, to learn, to move beyond comedy, which was her strength to do a dramatic piece, which she did with The Misfits (1960).

She was a complex woman who many could not take seriously because her of beauty. Though she did not believe in true love, she looked for it her entire life, often falling into bed with strangers or friends looking for that connection. At the height of her substantial fame in Hollywood she began to study with Lee Strasberg in New York because she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, and she grew dependent on pills because the man she loved no longer believed in her, which must have devastated her. Men used her, men who passed themselves off as her mentors, such as Kazan and Lee Strasberg, each enjoying their conquest of Monroe and of course the Kennedy brothers who are rumored to have passed her back and forth before John’s assassination.

Documentarian Liz Garbus uses personal letters, diaries and personal papers to give insight in Monroe that we have never experienced before. It is uncanny to hear her words spoke on the track as we look at images of the actress. In what I thought was a bold move the director also uses actresses on screen to speak Marilyn’s words, which is at first jarring but once we settle into the style, it is breathtaking. Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Jennifer Ehle, Lindsay Lohan, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are among the actresses speaking Monroe’s words from diaries and letters, enacting the emotions and thoughts on screen and the impact is rather moving. Listening to the actresses speak Monroe’s words is sometimes heartbreaking g as they bring to their readings her emotions, insecurities, hopes, soul searching, her ambitions and deepest fears. In other scenes Adrien Brody, Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis and David Strathairn read letters and diaries of her friends and companions, rounding out the impressions we get of this most human of women. We discover that there was a Marilyn Monroe that was a sex symbol and star, and there was another Marilyn Monroe who was a flawed, lonely human being. In newly released home movies, outtakes from her films behind the scenes studio documentaries, interviews and photos from her closest friends allow us an intimate look at her life away from the movies. The documentary might be the finest, in depth look at the very human Monroe ever seen, and represents the finest representation of who she hoped she was behind closed doors to those who she cared about and loved. What a lovely tribute to this icon.