Great Expectations (1946, David Lean)


Filmmaking as art boils down to shadows. The opening moments of this tale as told by barking conceptualist David Lean are populated with lyricism and a virtuosity with the natural and unnatural. There is light and there is fog, there are trees and graves, there is manipualtion and filtering and a brooding isolation, and there is a boy. He is not alone. All of the above elements and the many others that will later be introduced offer their own oppressive hostility. There is a certain easy subjectivity to the script’s interpretation; the cows talk, in a moment so surreal and out of place it can be declared either the best or worst moment of the picture, and the world, everything in it, looms like withered old hands reaching out to threat. Through it all, as perhaps the greatest hundred pages of prose ever written — the first few chapters of Great Expectations — are acted out with moody classiness, one person amid the party of dozens fully understands and is sympathetic to Dickens, and that person is cinematographer Guy Green, who deservedly won an Academy Award.

That isn’t to suggest that herein lies no respect to the text courtesy Lean, the team of a whopping five screenwriters plus plenty of wholesale excerpts, or the generally able team of actors. There is, in fact, too much respect, much of it misguided. No British film company (Rank in this case) would want to give anything but the most lavish, even slavish treatment to Boz. Hollywood had their take on Expectations twelve years earlier; the first audience review I found upon a rudimentary Google search snarls “This 1934 travesty is about as accurate a realization of Dickens’ original vision as Free Willy is a realization of Melville’s vision for Moby-Dick.” To the end, though, there is more to making a movie than filming a book. For Lean as for David O. Selznick, who took the notion to an appealing drug-charged level of insanity, the concept of cinema as separate world is continually violated. Selznick didn’t want to change anything that came from Margaret Mitchell’s pen because he feared it would hurt his bottom line; what Lean’s motivation was I’m not fit to suggest, but this violation leads to a compromise of both film and text that is unacceptable. Every time a truncated two-sentence extract from Dickens’ expertly developed, extraordinarily sophisticated first-person narrative is spliced in as needless voiceover, Lean is not just distilling the essence of the world he wishes to light up on celluloid but is defying the notion that his paycheck comes to him for the creation of art. His static flourishes of opulence are as programmed and impersonal here as on all of his major films; they are afforded more respect than a standard MGM musical time-waster only for technical reasons.

When you have the skeleton of Dickens to work with, though, it is difficult to really lose, and for this reason no aggression toward the project as it stands is worth energy. If third-graders acted out this story it would be compelling. The sheer magic of Dickens’ almost maddeningly perfect plot structure is impossible to dilute, regardless of a director’s naked absence of passion. Not for lack of trying — the hypnotic sequence that begins the film, flawless aside from the off-rhythm introduction of Magwitch, takes a hold that is broken and betrayed by a messy, crowded second act which attempts to justify too many things without allowing the given plot turns room to breathe. Whereas the early portions of the movie acceptably capture the darkness of the world in which Pip lives, in and away from the marshes, with tantalizing hints of the subtext Dickens had time to investigate that no movie ever could, the middle third rushes through emotions and change with abandon. Pip is in love with Estella, we are told, but that’s the only way we know it. If you turned the sound off, or even if you simply took away the voiceover, you wouldn’t know he was interested in her or anything else. Pip has grown snobbish in his attitude toward Joe, he informs us, even though his actual tone and attitude toward Joe seem no different, and the only evidence the film can offer is a bit of awkward comic business about Joe dropping his hat into the tea. Estella is heartless and cruel as an adult, but we only know this because that’s what everyone says. Estella is getting married, and Pip doesn’t want her to, but you could freeze from the total lack of tension, passion, and interest in the air when all this comes to light. They may as well speak in monosyllables.

I love this book, I care about it like I do few others, so I can thrill in the aesthetic facets, especially casting. There are errors: Although Tony Wager is an effectively moody and scared young Pip, he grows up to be John Mills, too bland, meek, and pasty to really exist, certainly to be the sympathetic but resentful, confused, and withdrawn Pip of the novel. Most of his distinguishing characteristics have been whitewashed; we have no feeling whatever for a dark side to his character, or indeed to much of the world as he sees it. He is not a complicated man, and he carries none of the past along with him until Magwitch appears at his door. Without a good actor at the center of this production, it cannot fully succeed; in this respect, Lean’s Expectations is a disaster, but it does transcend this to a degree. Valerie Hobson doesn’t help, though, as an Estella so dull one wonders how she could inspire such irrational affection. Bizarrely, Jean Simmons brilliantly and menacingly portrays the child Estella and gives her a teasing eroticism, mischief, and believability that is nowhere in the adult version of her character. As in Black Narcissus, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow she can inspire awe, and she is Estella, as no one else ever has been or ever will be.

The performance of the picture, and in a sense the film, belongs to Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham; she is staggeringly great, and offers so much to the characterization of Havisham — beautifully defined here as an alluring and loathsome hybrid of Cleopatra and Mrs. Danvers, and a darkly complex woman not typically done justice even by the best film and TV adaptations — that one wants nothing so much as for the entire film to be about her. During the slowest parts of the movie, only she picks things up; the miserably rigid scene of Estella announcing her proposal is embarrasing precisely because neither of the leads are acting and Hunt, who has essentially nothing to do for the duration of the exchange, walks away with the moment. The eyes drift toward her involuntarily; she is the only interesting thing in the room, and she is much more than merely interesting. If everything else in the movie were horrible, she would make it worth seeing.

Alec Guinness shows up as Herbert Pocket, a character who outside of his admittedly lively introduction has no function in the story without all of the details in Dickens’ midsection intact; he should have been cut from the movie, and Guinness doesn’t supply anything that ought to have changed anyone’s mind. Of the supporting characters, Mr. Jaggers is perhaps the most well-cast; Francis Sullivan had played the role before and seems to have been born for the part. He offers considerable comic relief that is politely enough rendered, although only the encounter with Mr. Wemmick’s “Aged P” carries a convincing level of sharp Dickensian absurdity. Lean is too nervous to submit anything more raucous.

He isn’t too nervous, however, to suddenly — forty minutes before we close up shop — begin directing a different movie. Up to now, all the concerns about who plays what character are purely intellectual, especially for someone who knows the novel back to front. Unfortunately, the same goes for the elements of the movie that really are remarkable, from the elegant photography to the magnificent production design; Satis House, it must be said, is a landmark in art direction and may be one of the most impressive, haunting sets ever put together. But this, too, is incidental; no amount of good casting or technical virtue can make a story work that doesn’t, and the bare fact is that Dickens’ storytelling is not suited to this form. Literature as film is tricky business, and for all the rewriting that must have gone on, no one bothered to make Great Expectations work narratively as a movie. The best example of the problem lies in the way that in, for instance, the scenes that deal briefly with Pip’s relationship with his sister and the other adults around him, the conflict of a blacksmith’s son within the decadent Satis House, or the silent rebuking of Joe, all of the deeper themes of the novel — class, misery, manipulation, family, unrequited love, maturity, the simple act of doing what must be done — are hinted at like the proverbial glasses on the floor, but never, ever pay off.

All of this is true until the last act of the film. From the chilling moment that Magwitch reappears, Lean finds his voice and suddenly becomes daring and experimental, plunging into the narrative with icy, empowered force, telling the story in ways unique to his art and his craftsmanship. He suddenly becomes director and storyteller both, no longer a detached messenger of events already vaguely — if not very — familiar. And now, he finds the meaning of all that’s come before, standing “out in those lone shivering marshes.” The dual father figures appear (Finlay Currie splendid as Magwitch, Bernard Miles benignly sweet as Joe) with a sudden warmth and delicacy; Currie’s final moment is the most moving of the film. The dreamlike intensity of all that comes after in Pip’s universe, signified at one point by an alarmingly modern first-person shot of his falling ill and retreating, moreover by the heightened insanity of his farewell to Havisham, falls into place to reveal his terrible, sickening, universal, undeniable oneness with convict and old jilted bride alike. It is literary in the way films can and frequently should be. The scathing criticism of class consciousness that is probably the most vital theme of the novel finally finds its way in visually as well, if nothing else than in the harrowing shot of a line of convicts being told they are to be executed. It’s the film’s most artless shot, and its most unforgettable.

I can’t abide by the remarkably repulsive happy ending tacked on here; the film ludicrously closes on Pip taking down all the curtains so that sunlight shines on Estella as she sits in Havisham’s old chair. Neither the realism of Dickens’ preferred ending nor the begrudging optimism of the published one are present here, replaced by sweetness and light that’s entirely inappropriate, suggesting the protagonist has learned nothing from his ordeal, even after the wrenching final moment with his convict, even after all accepted as truth has been shattered piece by piece. I wanted more than anything for Pip to run away in that last moment, to let Estella rot in her chosen hell, however much that choice may not have been truly of her making; instead he just races even farther into the abyss. If the filmmakers knew this, they were cruel beasts indeed; the opportunity to say something about childhood dreams, society, love, and, indeed, “expectations” is not just thwarted but spat upon.

Taken as a whole, Lean’s Great Expectations is profoundly gripping and expertly made; how much of the pleasure one derives from it is the result of the movie itself is hard to figure. Not much here doesn’t come from Dickens, though it bears mentioning that Ken Mogg and other critics have successfully pointed out the debt all filmmakers owe to him; from his invention of cross cutting to his rapid-paced character development to his attention to detail (which obviously led to the high level of design in play here; the cobwebbed chandelier is impressive, but it’s still Dickens’ more than the movie’s), he was a film director born in the wrong century. He is not the only figure in play here. The compositions are straight Citizen Kane, often even with Toland’s lighting tricks and plenty of Welles’ beloved ceilings. But finally, resistance is usless. Shamefully, the final surrender comes from the very words that should have prevented this movie from even being necessary, and how could you not want a languid, poetic black & white film that took Dickens’ masterpiece and lit it up, redefined it, projected its spirit into a dark lonely moviehouse? That poor dream has all gone by. The joy persists in any medium; it would be cheaper to make an audiobook if we must transpose these things, but I’ll see this again and revel in it again all the same.

[Originally posted at a different venue in 2008.]

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