Thursday 25 August 2016

Movie Review: Great Expectations (1946)

An adaptation of the Charles Dickins novel, Great Expectations features a spooky milieu and a captivating, layered story. David Lean's imaginative direction helps to create an absorbing experience.

It's the early 1800s in rural England. Phillip "Pip" Pirrip (Anthony Wager) is a young orphan boy, being raised by his ornery older sister and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). While visiting the resting place of his parents in the spooky church graveyard, Pip is suddenly grabbed by escaped and ruthless convict Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Pip is kind to Magwitch, providing him with food, but the criminal is soon recaptured anyway. Pip is then summoned to be a regular daily companion to Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), an elderly woman who lives in a nearby massive estate with a young girl called Estella (Jean Simmons).

Miss Havisham has confined herself in her mansion for years, while Estella is incredibly beautiful, but also extremely mean to Pip. Nevertheless, Pip falls hopelessly in love with her. At age 20, the adult Pip (John Mills) receives unexpected news from Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), a London-based lawyer: a secret benefactor will fund Pip's transformation from rural blacksmith to refined city gentleman, with a promise of future land holdings to come Pip's way. Pip moves to London to start his new life, and makes friends with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), while maintaining his love and pursuit of the grown up and still ravishing Estella (Valerie Hobson).

A captivating drama, Great Expectations features exceptional cinematography and use of light and silhouettes to heighten the already powerful events of the book. Lean deploys his masterful craftsmanship to capture compelling landscapes, grand buildings, and rooms that range from sparse to imposing. Dickens' characters jump to life in Lean's surroundings, Pip's life populated by exquisitely defined and indelible family members, friends, and acquaintances.

Lean neatly divides the film into two halves, Pip as a child and Pip as an adult. The opening is undoubtedly stronger, and features some brilliantly memorable interactions. Pip's initial encounters with Magwitch, Estella, and Miss Havisham contain cinematic magic of the rare kind. Pip displays bravery in the fog shrouded moors as Magwitch emerges from nowhere to barge into his life, and he demonstrates a different kind of steeliness to enter the gothic surroundings of Miss Havisham's mansion and then deal with the old lady's cob-webbed eccentricities and Estella's conceit.

Even the early and relatively brief introductions of Herbert and Mr. Jaggers are unforgettable. The more refined Herbert learns what it means to play boxing with the more streetwise Pip, while Jaggers' first scene on a candlelight staircase in Miss Havisham's house is a revelation that echoes into the future.

The second half of the film remains strong but is also more episodic and less ethereal. Dickens' original serialization emerges underneath the narrative, with some of Pip's adult adventures more contrived and mainly intended to create a breathless anticipation for the next installment.

The film plays with the theme of childhood experiences shaping adulthood. Pip the man encounters vestiges of his childhood at all of life's key moments, but not necessarily in the logical sequence he would have expected. The decisions that the child took resonate into the future, the seemingly innocent encounters with people, places and events throwing long and often unanticipated forward shadows.

While John Mills and Valerie Hobson deliver functional performances, the children and the supporting characters are the true stars. Anthony Wager as Pip the boy and Jean Simmons as young Estella carry the poignancy of complex childhoods, while Martita Hunt, Francis L. Sullivan and Finlay Currie leave everlasting impressions as Miss Havisham, Mr. Jaggers and Magwitch respectively.

Visually haunting and intellectually engaging, Great Expectations rises to the challenge of translating a classic novel into a screen gem.

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