x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

It's great to be surpassing expectations

For Helena Bonham Carter, her role in Great Expectations revived her interest in Dickens and gave her a different perspective on an oft-portrayed character.

Toby Irvine and Helena Bonham Carter. Courtesy Number 9 Films
Toby Irvine and Helena Bonham Carter. Courtesy Number 9 Films

Directed by Mike Newell and featured at the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Great Expectations tells the tale of a young boy named Pip (Jeremy Irvine, whose brother Toby plays the younger Pip) who is transformed from a blacksmith's son into a London gentleman thanks to an anonymous benefactor. The most distinct feature of Newell's version is the portrayal of Miss Havisham by Helena Bonham Carter.

The film is the latest in a long line of adaptations of Charles Dickens's 19th-century novel, and for Bonham Carter it was a chance to reacquaint herself with the work.

"I hadn't read the book in a while and the thing that struck me was the world of Dickens and the way he moulds his characters," she says. "There's tenderness to be found in all of them, or at least an understanding, and that's what Mike's done with Havisham. She's not a scowling witch, there's a reason she's as she is."

As Havisham, the actress looks almost ghostly - pale, with tattered clothes, wild hair and facial ticks ("I suppose she is a bit goth," she says, chuckling). For this novel interpretation, both she and Newell related the role to sufferers of real-life diseases, in this case osteoporosis.

"We certainly thought she would be suffering that. She hasn't seen sunlight in decades," Bonham Carter explains. "It was more in reference to how she would look, hold herself. Her joints had stiffened up, we decided, which is why I'm sitting a lot."

The film has been a success worldwide, with much praise for her haunting turn. But it almost never happened, given that Bonham Carter didn't think she was the right age.

"Every image we have of her on film is of an older woman. I thought: 'I'm not at that stage already, am I?'" she laughs. "Mike then convinced me I was the right age, as many people believe she was intended to be between mid-40s and early 50s. So he talked me into it, and younger actresses than me have played the part now, so I suppose I was worrying over nothing."