Friday, April 1, 2011
Starring: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Marita Hunt, Finlay Currie, Bernard Miles
By Alan Bacchus
According to the IMDb, some 14 versions of Great Expectations have been made either as feature films, TV movies or mini-series. Though I haven’t seen them all, few could dispute David Lean’s 1946 film as arguably the greatest. It certainly truncates Dickens’ expansive novel, condensing much of the narrative. But none of the other versions were filmed by a master as great as David Lean. His version of the classic novel is visualized with as much creative inspiration as Dickens’ own writing, a parallel work of art with equal authorship between both storytellers.
The story of Pip, the young orphan whose secret benefactor brings him into upper-class society where he discovers how to be a gentleman, at the same time alienates them and then eventually learns to appreciate the humility of the lower-class adopted family, is adapted with rich gothic intrigue and noir-ish texture and detail.
For David Lean, this was the middle stage of his career, some 10 years after his time as an editor and 10 years before his late career series of epic pictures for which he’d become synonymous. In the 20 years or so before The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean established himself as a British auteur of sorts, breaking new ground in storytelling, cinematography and editing.
Watching his movies in order, we can clearly see a progression of his cinematic voice and eye. Great Expectations looks to be his biggest stylistic leap, as he authors Dickens’ novel with a distinct film noir tone. Actually, his stunning visual designs and mise-en-scène look strikingly comparable to that of Orson Welles, perhaps influenced by the landmark Citizen Kane. Lean’s stark black and white contrasts, deep focus wide-angle photography and superlative camera moves are still stunning to watch. In particular, watch the introduction of Pip to Miss Havisham in the opening act. Lean’s camera enters Havisham’s mansion following Pip and Estella through the door, the foyer, the hall and up the stairs – all in one shot. Same with the celebrated opening sequence in the graveyard where Pip meets Magwitch, a scene orchestrated with dense brooding atmosphere, thick fog and ominous leave-less trees.
Look for Lean’s clever use of editing and narration to compress time, which splendidly condenses Dickens’ novel into the film’s 2-hour time frame, an achievement comparable to Welles’s compression of time in Kane.
Lean’s genius goes beyond the technique, as he has the rare ability to make his style enhance his substance. Great Expectations is no exception. Lean engineers marvellous performances out of Tony Wager as young Pip and John Mills as older Pip. Alec Guinness’s turn as the affable Herbert Pocket shows the funny bone that Welles never really had. But the most memorable performance directed by Lean is Bernard Miles’ sympathetic yet honourable Joe Gargery, who represents the heart and soul of Pip.
Two years later, Lean would complete one of the great one-two punches in cinematic history with his adaptation of Oliver Twist, a film of equal stature in cinema circles, and the perfect companion piece to Great Expectations – Dickens’ two most famous works paired together by arguably Britain’s greatest director.