Great Expectations (1946) – a film review by George Kaplan

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) Dir. David Lean Scr. Anthony Havelock-Allan,
David Lean, Ronald Neame, Cecil McGivern, and Kay Walsh based upon the
novel by Charles Dickens

Hello Fearless Readers, I’m here to briefly fill in with a guest post but, don’t worry, the incomparable Ms. Lester will be back very shortly!

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Some movies stay with you. It may seem an obvious thing to say, but when you consider there are films that you can barely remember a thing about an hour after you watched them (and then there are movies you don’t want to remember even as you watch them— anything directed by M*****l B*y!) it’s no small thing. And one of the most memorable for me is David Lean’s wonderful adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations, a movie that, since I first saw it many years ago, I’ve loved and never forgotten. Although the fact that I’ve seen it various times since helped keep it fresh in my mind, I’ll grant that. However, Great Expectations is fresh every time you see it and it remains alive in my mind though it’s years since I last saw it.

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Before I go on (and, yes, I know I do go on, do your best to stay awake!)  a lightning quick look at Charles Dickens and Cinema. Certain writers’ works are made for cinema, in truth there are writers whose works whether they were written after the advent of film or not seem made of cinema, even as they reveal things that cinema can’t. Charles Dickens is one of those writers, just read the opening of Bleak House with its vision of a fog-shrouded London or Little Dorrit and its sun-washed world and those images will play before the eye of your mind like images projected onto a screen. But beyond the indelible images and situations and the memorable (and in some cases memorably convoluted and marvelously melodramatic) plots, the elements that translates most supremely well to the screen are the characters. Dickens created Great Characters and Cinema thrives on character (which is why, incidentally, films based on [EXPLETIVE DELETED] toys and [EXPLETIVE DELETED] board games…are a LUDICROUSLY BAD IDEA. Sorry for shouting!) and roles out of which
any skilled actor can really make a hearty meal. Be it W.C. Fields as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, Alastair Sim as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or Robert Newton as the despicable Sikes in Oliver Twist (also directed by Lean), the movies (and television, see Gillian Anderson in the BBC serial version of Bleak House) have plundered Dickens’s oeuvre and brought his vivid characters to the screen again and again over the decades.

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And that brings us back to Lean’s Great Expectations, my favorite Dickens adaptation, one of the greatest movies ever made (anyone who seeks to deny that I shall duel with a toothpick), and a film chock full of talented actors memorably impersonating fabulous characters. From Finlay Currie as sympathetic convict Abel Magwitch to Martita Hunt’s turn as tragic, damaged monster Miss Havisham and Bernard Miles as pure-hearted  loveable dunderhead Joe Gargery (“What Larks, Pip!”) to Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. This is the kind of picture where there is hardly a weak link or unmemorable performance while the sheer shimmering beauty of the black and white photography and the near-perfect realization of the book’s world through art direction, music, wardrobe, editing, props, and acting makes it a joy forever. It’s an impossible task to bring a novel to the screen entirely faithfully as they are two different mediums and it would take many hours to bring every character and nuance from Great Expectations to the screen, even then it would not be the book but Lean’s movie is one of the greatest examples of the art of adaptation ever seen; in under two hours it brings all the most pertinent and powerful aspects of the book’s characters and plot and emotion in glorious, perfectly paced form. It even improves on the novel’s ending to boot without violating its spirit: a masterpiece!

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If you haven’t seen Great Expectations yet, I  thoroughly recommend it. Simply consider the opening scenes, as the young Pip (Anthony Wager) is rushing home through a marshy landscape, entering a churchyard in which he is menaced by escaped convict Magwitch who accosts him for food from Pip’s home, telling him with delicious relish that if Pip were to tell his guardians of Magwitch’s existence that a “certain young man” of his acquaintance – one with a taste for eating livers no less! – will creep into the house and wreak revenge. Pip being a polite boy treats Magwitch with respect despite being scared out of his wits and it is from this startling beginning that the plot of the movie unfolds. It isn’t just the wonderful performances or the spectacular landscape (with gibbets limned against the horizon) or the fantastic dialogue or the magnificent cinematography and editing that makes it work, it’s all of those and more. There’s a beauty in this film that never fails to move and it’s funny and scary and wrenching too.

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Oh, but before I leave you (no hollering “hooray” please, that’s just not right!) there’s one last thing I want to mention to crystallize my love for this film. Early on, Pip is sent to visit with the strange, embittered, eccentric Miss Havisham, a woman you doubtless remember was frozen in time on her wedding day when she was jilted.

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Miss Havisham has developed an antipathy for mankind and though one feels that on one level she likes Pip she is also quite prepared to play games with him. She uses him in her quest to mold her ward Estella in her image and to gain revenge on men. When I saw Great Expectations at 11 or so I fell totally in love with Jean Simmons’s Estella! She is witty, intelligent and beautiful and she treats Pip pretty abominably but I was convinced as a child that she was good at heart and liked him underneath, I’m not quite sure what this says about me! I was a lonely and romantic child but those scenes still enchant me, so much that Valerie Hobson as the bland older Estella simply doesn’t have the appeal of Ms Simmons (but then Jean was a
better actress).

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I will bid you adieu Beguiling friends — but before I do I would be fascinated to read of films you have loved for the longest time and why, please feel free to comment. One more thing, I’d like to thank Vickie for once again allowing me to blither away here but, more than that, I would like to thank her for the constant wonder of her work here at Beguiling Hollywood and for sharing her warmth, intelligence, wit, and her glittering insight into Hollywood Dreamland, not to mention her sparky uniqueness, it is, I’m sure you all agree, a privilege to know her.

Warm Regards,
Ever-understated George!

14 Comments »

  1. Dearest George
    The Dandy adores this Expectations too (and there have been so many, great and not so great). The opening scene once seen never departs one.
    Nice of you to doff your hat to the BBC’s excellent Bleak House to in which Gillian Anderson in luminous – her post X Files work has established her as a major actress to my mind.
    Lean’s other films are also more than worth a mention. Passage to India, aside from one terrible, unforgiveable piece of (mis) casting is one of the best adaptations of Forster, that other peculiarly cinematic of writers work.
    Thank you.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  2. Dickens alone and Dickens in collaboration wrote plays……have any of these been considered for film? Are any of them still performed. If his novels are so well suited to films, perhaps his plays are too?

    • Hello, Gallivanta, I confess myself to have completely forgotten about that aspect of Dickens’s work, I suspect it is because his thratrical work was very minor, his genius and talent wasbin his.prose, though he entertained audiences with readings from his works (as portrayed in Simon Callow’s one man show). Few writers are able to be equally accomplished in more than one medium, isn’t that interesting? Thanks for that intriguing comment.
      Warm regards, George

  3. Hats off to you, Mr. K –or should I say “chapeau!”?? This was gorgeous. I love being swept up in your thoughts with your writing and this is just fabulous. But *hiccup* I have never seen the movie! I know, I know!!! I practically AM Miss Havisham right? I will, I promise. And I do most certainly agree with you on the “why” of Dickens being so perfect for film…but I am fascinated by the always sharp Madame G from New Zee’s question about his plays…Hmmm….
    Much to think on, merci!

  4. George,thank you.I have not seen the film in years and now your enthusiasm for it has made me want to go out and see it again.As usual your writing has both been informative and funny.I like the idea of a duel with toothpicks{I presume at dawn}.I can just see the ceremony in my minds eye, each toothpick carried in a velver lined box by a hushed friend of each party, at dawns early light and with the knowledge that only one man may live.Sorry got carried away there.

    I do however think that even greater horrors could be in store for us if a film was not based on either a toy or a game but by something like Big Brother.

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