Thursday, December 4, 2008

Great Expectations (1946)

A great friend tipped me off to the fact that "Great Expectations" was coming on TCM last night and I might want to give it a viewing. I was very familiar with the story, having read it a couple of times in my misspent youth. Since I hadn't seen the movie, I fired up ye olde television set and got down to business.

The thing that struck me the most about this movie was the awesome cinematography. I noticed it won the 1948 Oscar for Best Cinematography and boy, did they get that one right. The cinematographer is listed as Guy Green. According to, Guy Green replaced the first cinematographer after the director, David Lean, viewed the opening shots of the marshes and was quite dissatisfied. I don't know what the first cinematographer did, but the opening scene was what mesmerized me in this movie. The screen is filled with a big expansive sky and a small path between marshes and this tiny silhouette of a boy running down the path. Brilliant shot. That shot and the churchyard scene both easily convey the feeling of this tiny boy in this desolate place, isolated and alone. Your heart breaks for him.

Part of the beginning of the movie - stunning scene and image

I am going to choose to kinda skip over the plot as I think most people know the plot of this story, either from the various movies or the novel. The movie does vary quite a bit from the novel, but still, I think it is a wonderful representation of Dickens work.

There were several casting choices for this one that raised my eyebrows, either in a good way or in a bad way. The first was John Mills as the adult Pip. He is playing a man just coming into adulthood, yet, according to IMDB, he was 40. I must say, he didn't look like a young man so I thought that was a surprising choice. However, having said that, I still thought Mills delivered a wonderful performance so I quickly forgot whatever quarrel I had with that one.

Secondly, the casting of Jean Simmons as the young Estella. What an absolutely fabulous casting choice. I estimate she would have been 16-ish and she was perfect. She was exactly who I imagined when I read about the young Estella. She is so beautiful that one immediately understands why Pip would fall for Estella instantly. And Jean Simmons played Estella with such disdain for poor Pip, yet a mild curiosity. She was cold and mean, yet beautiful and interesting. It was perfect for the character.

Which, sadly, brings me to the casting of the adult Estella. This part was played by Valerie Hobson and after watching Jean Simmons, it was utter disappointment. I won't really go into how she wasn't nearly as beautiful as Jean Simmons. Estella is supposed to be a woman who mesmerizes men with her amazing beauty and torments them with her indifference. As Pip says at one point, "My admiration of her knew no bounds" and that was the way every man felt about Estella. Yet, Estella was trained by Miss Havisham to break men's heart for retribution because a man broke hers. Valerie Hobson did not play Estella as a heart breaker at all. She actually played her as a flirt and as someone who genuinely likes Pip even though she doesn't feel the need to be with him. I don't know, maybe I am being hard on Hobson, but I thought her performance was a little flat for what Estella should have been. When I watched Jean Simmons' Estella, I was captivated. When I watched Valerie Hobson's Estella, I was a little bored.

Of course, having said all that, she did crush Pip's heart. I loved the scene at Miss Havisham's house where Estella tells Pip that she is going to marry someone else. She tells him, "You will get me out of your thoughts in a week." The reason I loved this is the layers of complexity of her saying something so poignant with Miss Havisham behind her, in the room that has become a monument to her own heart break. She is even wearing the wedding dress that she was never married in, all those years later. Miss Havisham certainly didn't get her betrothed out of her thoughts in a week. Yet, Miss Havisham looks on, saying nothing as if proud that her revenge is being exacted on the male population.

There are a few other brief, interesting things to mention. Alec Guinness was in one of his earliest talking roles in this film as Herbert Pocket. That was a nice surprise for me - I had no idea. Also, towards the beginning, there was a scene with talking cows. Now, I watched this on TCM and I was tired, I am beginning to think I dreamt this part. Were there talking cows and if so, why? That seems like a terribly strange thing to throw into this kind of movie. I am not sure what the motivation was behind that. Any ideas?

I definitely think this is a great, great film. Well, aside from talking cows, if there was such a thing. Maybe I was just hungry? :-) Seriously, the black and white, gorgeous cinematography alone makes it worth the two hours. It is like moving art on screen. The story, is a great story. You can't do much better than Dickens with his twists and turns of the plot. Also, most of the performances are very strong. The characters themselves are terribly interesting and complex. When you are in the mood for a good drama, do yourself a favor and give this one a chance.


kda0121 said...

David Lean's Great Expectations is indeed a fine film. A complete visual delight guides Dicken's story through its various travails. It's interesting your comments about John Mills, because when I first saw the movie years ago, I thought Mills looked quite young and was surprised to find out he was forty. (I say young because up till then I think the earliest movie I'd seen Mills in was Swiss Family Robinson, in which he clearly looked middle-aged).

As Estella, I was quite taken with Jean Simmons. She was incredibly lovely, As to Valerie Hobson, I don't remember being disappointed in her Estella. If anything, I think I thought the change in her personality was due to her own internal conflict in knowing what she'd become. I think there was some sorrow that she felt.

If one is a fan of Dickens' works, then this interpretation of his work will not be a disappointment.

AbbyNormal said...

Karl - I have to say I enjoyed your countering views on the adult Estella and perhaps you are right about feeling sorrow for realizing what she had become. I hadn't thought of it that way.