by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: David Lean
Cast: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt, Alec Guinness
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%
PLOT: A humble orphan boy in 1810s Kent is given the opportunity to go to London and become a gentleman, with the help of an unknown benefactor.
Before moving on to full-blown epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Sir David Lean’s reputation was already assured with his small-scale masterpieces like Brief Encounter , Oliver Twist , and Summertime , one of the finest Katharine Hepburn films you’ve probably never heard of. Among these little gems is another Dickens adaptation, Great Expectations , co-starring an impossibly young Alec Guinness.
Having never read the source novel nor, in fact, seen any of the other adaptations (there are at least five others, according to IMDb), I was able to go in “cold” with no preconceived notions or, ahem, expectations of my own. What I found was a surprisingly engaging melodrama full of gothic overtones and the kinds of coincidences and contrivances that are rife in Dickens’ literature. Yet they do not feel like contrived literary devices. They feel like the kinds of coincidences, large or small, that populate our ordinary lives. (I’ll bet the narrator at the beginning of Magnolia LOVED Dickens.)
The movie opens with a young boy, Pip, visiting the graves of his mother and father. These opening scenes set the tone: dark skies, bare trees creaking in the incessant wind, and an unexpected encounter with an escaped convict who demands food and a file, for the shackles still hanging from his wrists. Pip is terrified and complies. Later the convict is captured and has the opportunity to give up Pip as one who aided a criminal, but in an oddly moving scene, he merely says he stole the food with no one’s assistance.
Later, Pip is introduced to the lovely young Estella (Jean Simmons in one of her earliest roles), who lives in a sprawling, decaying mansion owned by the eccentric old Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). Miss Havisham has summoned/hired Pip because it amuses her to watch children play, but more importantly because it also amuses her to watch Estella flirt with and continuously berate Pip as being a commoner, a blacksmith’s son, and someone who is otherwise unworthy of Estella’s affections. The reasons for Miss Havisham’s cruel games may be guessed at by the dilapidated state of the wedding dress she wears day and night and by the crumbling, molding wedding cake sitting on a cobwebbed banquet table. (Miss Havisham’s mansion is one of the creepiest gothic locations I’ve ever seen. I half-expected the story to take a macabre turn, a la Edgar Allen Poe, with a deserting bridegroom rotting away under the floorboards or something.)
Time passes, and in the first of those melodramatic contrivances of which Dickens is so fond, Pip is granted the chance to go to London to become a gentleman. His livelihood will be sponsored by a handsome annual stipend from an anonymous benefactor through a corpulent attorney named Mr. Jaggers. (Dickens has some of the greatest character names in literature: Jaggers, Magwitch, Herbert Pocket, Uncle Pumblechook, Mrs. Whimple…I love it.) Pip enters this new stage of his life assuming, as we all do, that his anonymous benefactor is none other than Miss Havisham. Makes sense, right?
Through the course of this second act, Pip falls in love with the beautiful but heartless Estella, who warns him she has no heart and only seeks to conquer and discard her many suitors. This is her way of expressing genuine affection for Pip. Would Pip rather she do the same to him?
He also meets and befriends his London roommate and business partner, Herbert Pocket, played by an inconceivably young Alec Guinness in his first major screen role. This was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, leading to collaborations between Lean and Guinness on The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, not to mention Guinness’ very next role as the odious Fagin in Lean’s own version of Oliver Twist.
The rest of the story, involving Jaggers’ mysterious maid, a test of Pip’s loyalty, the identity of his benefactor, and the wholly unforeseen fate of Miss Havisham, I leave for you to discover. It all ends, it seemed to me rather abruptly, but it is satisfying.
To fans of Lean’s more ambitious films, a small film like this one hardly seems as if it were made by the same director. In today’s terms, it might be like watching a small character-driven film made by the Russo brothers (Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War, etc.). In his Great Movies Review for this film, Roger Ebert points out the difference between these two stages of Lean’s directing style:
“[Lean] was an editor for seven years before directing his first film, and his career stands as an argument for the theory that editors make better directors than cinematographers do. …What the earlier films have is greater economy, and thus greater energy, in their storytelling.”
Indeed, Great Expectations hurtles along breathlessly, not as quickly paced as a Marx Brothers comedy, but certainly without wasting a single moment on anything that is not necessary to move the story along, or at least provide just a small dash of character or color to the proceedings. (One of my favorite small touches was the gruesome death masks hanging on the wall of Mr. Jaggers’ office. For me, it was a kind of foreshadowing, alluding to the possible fate of the convict Pip encountered at the beginning of the film.) In his later epics, Lean’s pacing slows down in favor of presenting the viewer with grand desert or mountain vistas, so instead of watching a play, it feels like we’re at a museum. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s merely a different style of storytelling.
There is another, perhaps more famous, adaptation of Great Expectations out there, by the famed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and no less than Anne Bancroft as Miss Havisham, renamed Ms. Dinsmoor in this version. It was updated to present day, some other character names were changed, and it is supposedly drenched in atmosphere. I have yet to see it. Until I do, Lean’s early masterpiece will remain my favorite version of this timeless tale, abrupt finale and all.