Not having read the book (horrible English Lit graduate that I am), and with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia firmly upheld as my Favorite Film of all Time, watching his significantly smaller, black and white, decidedly non-epic literary adaptation of Dickens might have seemed a set up for disappointment. In all honestly, I had been disappointed years ago, watching it on a small screen with perhaps more riding on it than was logical. (Note how I avoided any punning with the title.) But last night’s screening at the Seattle Art Museum, part of a pre-epic David Lean series, changed my mind entirely.
Smaller in scale is may have been, but it covers no less territory. Pip’s life is laid out in stark visual terms, the black and white cinematography allowing for an expressionistic landscape as Lean refuses to adhere to a strictly realistic style. The beginning of the film, dealing with Pip’s childhood in the marshes, is especially effective, full of twisted trees and silhouettes that make escaped convicts just another fixture of his world, like the gibbets Pip passes without comment on the way to the graveyard where his parents are buried. Other sequences, such as the fire at Miss Havisham’s and the older Pip’s fever, are more suggested than seen, Lean combining imaginative filmmaking with a trust in our own imaginations to carry us through.
Lean’s greatest asset in a film like this may be his touch with actors, which includes the young Pip and Estella. Anthony Wager, in fact, is so good as Pip (despite having no prior acting experience) that I missed him when he grew into John Mills. Mills is excellent as well, despite being nearly 40 at the time—a fact which is obvious and distracting. Alec Guinness in his first speaking role as Herbert Pocket, at 32, is closer but doesn’t really look it. Nevertheless, he’s charming as Pip’s friend and fellow lodger, though he disappears from the later part of the film without explanation. Jean Simmons’ Estella is preferable to Valerie Hobson’s, but that may be that the part she’s given to play is more fun. And everyone else in the film, from Miss Havisham to Wemmick’s Aged Parent, are characters, not caricatures, no matter how little screen time they’re given or how ridiculous they are. Lean gives them all a sort of dignity.
Above all, Great Expectations is a good story, told well. Pip’s journey is interesting, as are the class navigations that are never fully resolved—though of course all characters must be returned to their proper places by the end of the film. Though, as I said above, I have not read the novel, it does not feel choppy in the watching of it, and my sense is that it’s a good adaptation of the source material, all things considered. I could certainly watch more of Pip and Pocket’s adventures in London together, and I would have been more satisfied with a less rushed ending for Pip and Estella, but what the crowd at the SAM reminded me was that it is still a surprising and enjoyable film, with innovations of its own (beyond its literary merits) to offer.