Classic Film Club: 'Great Expectations'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film that he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’

Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

David Lean’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Dickens’s novel is widely considered to be the finest cinematic interpretation of the great man’s work – not that there’s a vast amount of competition, unless you happen to like harmonising barrow boys, Alec Guinness in wildly inappropriate bignose or Ethan Hawke moping about a sprawling mansion.The narrative of the novel is perhaps not as dramatically iconic as either ‘Oliver Twist’ or ‘A Christmas Carol’ – the rags-to-riches element is present and correct, but there are a lot of side characters with silly names, subplots that lead nowhere and general faffing about before we reach the inevitably upbeat conclusion. That said, the themes of the book – poverty and class discrimination, crime and punishment, sexual manipulation and the impossibility of love – seem as relevant today as they must have in Dickens’s time.It’s harder, though, to see how these same themes may have resonated with Lean’s postwar audiences. The film was released in 1946, which means it must have gone into pre-production while the war was still raging. Was it intended as a slice of diverting populist entertainment, at which it succeeds magnificently? Or was it intended more as a reminder of British values, like Michael Powell’s ‘A Canterbury Tale’ or Olivier’s ‘Henry V’, at which it must be considered a failure, though a noble and complex one. Britishness in Dickens was always hard to define, consisting as much of brutality and slavery as tea, cake and fox hunting. But Lean was never a filmmaker particularly eager to confront real-life injustice, so instead of drawing out the class-war elements inherent in the story – which would, in the process, have made it highly relevant for his Labour-voting postwar audience – he stifles them, upping the comedy and quirkiness of character and generally sweetening the deal.The acting is old-fashioned, but appropriately so. It’s admittedly hard to take the 38-year-old John Mills particularly seriously as the teenaged Pip, but a certain suspension of disbelief is always necessary not only with Dickens, but with wartime British cinema in general: when a boy raised in a rustic blacksmith’s shop talks like a RADA graduate, you know you’re in fantasy land. And the supporting characters more than compensate, from Alec Guinness’ foppish Pocket to Martita Hunt’s spidery, devious Miss Havisham, whose death scene is the film’s most startling and effective.Not that it wants for competition. The photography is stunning, using a lush and romantic deep focus to strand the characters amid the wildness of the Norfolk fens, or the cobweb-strewn fastnesses of Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion. The opening sequences, as Pip scrambles across the marshes watched by the lurking Magwitch, are simply entrancing, as is the climactic night flight along the Thames, through rotting beams and harbour pilings.Lean is a filmmaker easier to admire but harder to love than his contemporary Powell, and though ‘Great Expectations’ may be, along with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, his most beautifully directed film, it still suffers from a certain paucity of emotional resonance. The romantic climax, in particular, feels pat and underwhelming, particularly after all the heartfelt travails that preceded it. But these are relatively insignificant quibbles when placed against the scope of Lean’s other achievements – it’s one of the most gorgeously photographed of all British films, and a proud, prestigious and involving adaptation of a great literary work.

Author: Tom Huddleston


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