Friday, March 22, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)
Directed by: David Lean.
Written by: David Lean & Ronald Neame & Anthony Havelock-Allan & Kay Walsh & Cecil McGivern based on the novel by Charles Dickens.
Starring: John Mills (Pip), Tony Wager (Young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L. Sullivan (Mr. Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Ivor Barnard (Mr. Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs.Joe), Eileen Erskine (Biddy).

David Lean’s 1946 version of Great Expectations is seen by all as the quintessential screen version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel – and with good reason. It is clearly the best version that I have seen, with gorgeous cinematography and production design. The film almost plays like a horror movie when we enter the enormous, crumbling mansion of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), who of course is the villain of the piece, as her actions forever damage and warp two children. Above all, Great Expectations is a movie about child abuse – not the overt kind, but the more subtle, psychological kind that can be even more damaging.

The story is well known by all. Young Pip (Tony Wager) is an orphan being raised by his cruel sister (Freda Jackson) and her kindly husband Joe (Bernard Miles) – a lowly blacksmith in the English countryside. While visiting the graves of his parents, he meets Magwitch (Finlay Currie), an escaped convict, who threatens him and tells him to come back the next morning with something he can cut his chains off with. Pip does this – and even though the convict, and his cohort, who he despises, get caught, it is not because of Pip. Pip then comes to the attention of Miss Havisham who wants him to come over to her crumbling mansion to play with Estella (Jean Simmons), her young charge, who at first doesn’t want to play with this “peasant”, but is talked into by Miss Havisham – who tells her she can “break his heart”. Havisham is a bitter, lonely woman, who refuses to leave her mansion, or change it in the least, since she was stood up on her wedding day decades before. She is angry at all men, and sees her chance to get revenge on them through Estella.

Years pass, and although Pip is in love with Estella, she has moved away, and he has become an apprentice to Joe. And then a lawyer – Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) arrives to take Pip (now John Mills) away with him to London. He has an anonymous benefactor, who wants to make Pip into a proper gentlemen. Naturally, Pip assumes this benefactor is Miss Havisham, who wants to turn him into a gentleman so he can marry Estella (no Valrie Hobson). He moves to London to share a flat with Herbert Pocket (a wonderful Alec Guiness in his first major role) – hopefully to woe Estella, who unfortunately has become exactly what Miss Havisham wants her to be.

Few black and white film look better than Lean’s film here. The Oscar winning cinematography (by Guy Green) is magnificent – from the foggy opening scene in the graveyard, to the horror movie stylings of Miss Havisham’s, to the bustling streets of London is wonderful. The screenplay has pretty much served as the model for all future feature adaptations of Dickens’ epic novel, as it pares away much of the enormous plot and supporting characters of the novel to focus exclusively on Pip and his journey.

The movie, it must be said, is not without faults. John Mills was far too old to play Pip – who is supposed to be in his early 20s, and Mills was nearly 40 at the time. I was going to write that Mills is also bland in the role of Pip, but the truth is, Pip is a bland character. Much like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the central character is perhaps the least interesting one in the novel – a character needed to get all the colorful supporting characters in the film. And they are colorful – from Finlay Currie’s scary Magwitch, to Hunt’s wonderful, ghostlike Havisham, to Sullivan’s large, humorless lawyer, to Guiness’ amusing Pocket, to Bernard Miles’ decent Joe, to Hobson and Simmons’ combing for the screen most beautiful Estella, the cast that surrounds Mills is far greater than he is.

And it also must be said, like every other version of Great Expectations I have seen, I was more drawn into the story’s beginning – with the children – then the second half, with them as adults. And Lean adds a needlessly happy ending to Great Expectations – eliminating 11 years in which Pip travels to Egypt, and Estella was married to the abusive Bentley Drummie, and eliminating all the ambiguity of Dickens’ ending as to the fate of Pip and Estella. Yes, it gives the audience what it wants, but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of movie – a criticism that some have of the end of the novel, which was re-written by Dickens to make it a happier ending.

Still, these are minor quibbles with a great movie. David Lean had already directed a number of highly thought of film by this time – most notably Brief Encounter (1945). After the romance of that film, he wanted to make something darker, and Great Expectations, aside from the ending, counts. It is one of the great British films of its time – and one of Lean’s very best movies.

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