Great Expectations is a difficult book to adapt, that is true of a lot of Dickens actually, but that doesn't stop this 1974 TV film from being a disappointment- and on its own merits as well- especially considering the talent involved. Of the adaptations there is, the definitive one is David Lean's, one of the best Dickens adaptations there is as well, while this fares the weakest from a personal perspective. The redeeming qualities are in the costumes and a handful of decent performances. The costumes are very beautiful-looking, and of the performances Margaret Leighton, James Mason, Joss Ackland and Anthony Quayle fare the best. Leighton brings mystery and tragedy to Miss Havisham although the writing can work against her. Mason makes for a Magwitch that is both creepy early on and dignified in the latter parts of the story. Ackland is effectively subtle and forthright as Joe without ever trying too hard. And Quayle's Jaggers is very intelligently played with the right amount of occasional pompousness.
Unfortunately, these four performances are the only ones that work. The worst case was Sarah Miles, the very meaning of miscast. Yes she is beautiful, which is just part of Estella's character, and Estella is not a likable character at all. But she plays the character as too much of a overly-hysteric and condescending snob, and manages to not be cold or haughty enough. The decision to cast her as Young Estella too backfired hugely as well, she doesn't convince at all playing a character that is meant to be over half her age. Michael York is a good actor as well as handsome, but seems wooden and ill at ease as Pip. He and Miles don't have that much chemistry and their scenes are lifelessly paced. Robert Morley is too comedic and not shrewd enough for Pumblechook, though he gets the indignity right, he's done these types of roles before so it did come across as rather predictable. Rachel Roberts looks and sounds bored as nasty Mrs Joe Gargery, and while the boy who plays young Pip acts very reasonably and is very photogenic he didn't really convince as a seven year old, too tall. And you'd be hard pressed to find a blander Herbert Pocket than Andrew Ray.
The adaptation does have other problems other than the casting. Of the production values, only the costumes left too much of an impression. The camera work lacks character or any distinction, and completely fails to give any atmosphere in the opening graveyard scene. Done so unforgettably and hauntingly in Lean's film, the choice of camera work- the scene works so much better with Magwitch appearing suddenly instead of having the camera work focusing completely on him- made the scene devoid of any surprise or tension. The settings are also colourless and too TV-bound, with very little of the dreary and desolate quality that Dickens' writing and the other adaptations portrayed. The Satis house was the sole exception, the details were quite well done there such as the wedding cake. The music sounds beautiful and is ravishingly orchestrated, not a surprise as this is Maurice Jarre we're talking about. Unfortunately, it is both not appropriate and poorly utilised, in places it's very syrupy and in others it is comically rousing, it never seems to find the right tone and it's rather repetitive as well. The script is dry and stilted, also often taking a simplistic approach, the additional dialogue veers on ludicrous. Miss Havisham's taunting of Pip was not needed and very insensitive, it also distorts Miss Havisham's character.
But it's the story where the adaptation falls down most upon on, adaptation-wise and on its own. The basic structure is faithful but that's pretty much it, the worst cases being the ending, Biddy's role being changed to a significant degree and Miss Havisham and Estella's character writing taken to extremes. The storytelling is much too simplified to the extent that some instances don't make sense, any darkness, conflict and ambiguities are completely lost and even the underwhelming ending of the 2012 Mike Newell film wasn't this horrendously bungled. With a longer length and much more secure pacing(details were rushed but the pacing on the whole was tedious) things probably would've been better. Apparently it was originally meant to be a musical, but the songs were excised, even with that happening a lot of it is staged in a way of anticipating some big musical number, but one that never happens. In conclusion, good costumes, good Satis house and four good performances but uninspired and dull. 4/10 Bethany Cox