Great Expectations

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #31: David Lean’s Great Expectations.

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Upon see­ing this ver­sion of Great Expectations, I’m fair­ly sure that I’ve seen it pre­vi­ous­ly. As book-to-movie adap­ta­tions go, it suf­fers from the nor­mal malaise of trun­ca­tion, but not so much as oth­er sto­ries, since the ver­bose Dickens is in­volved. Alec Guinness has a sup­port­ing role, his first screen per­for­mance of any note, and is so bloody young that one’s mind is bog­gled. My gen­er­a­tion was in­tro­duced to Sir Alec via Star Wars, near the end of his act­ing ca­reer, so it is dou­bly sur­pris­ing for me to see him at the be­gin­ning of it. David Lean is a di­rec­tor with which I have some trou­ble dis­cov­er­ing au­teuris­tics, those tricks of the trade that be­come at­tribu­tive of style to each great one. David Lean cer­tain­ly is a great one, but his film­mak­ing strengths come not from his de­par­tures from con­ven­tion­al film­mak­ing, but his fi­deli­ty to them. His films are so good be­cause they im­merse you in­to the sto­ry, make you for­get about the fic­tion of the sil­ver screen so whol­ly that the full force of the nar­ra­tive can be felt.

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The nar­ra­tive of Great Expectations rang with much more psy­cho­log­i­cal ter­ror and abuse than when I saw it at a less ex­pe­ri­enced age. The vi­cious­ness of Estella and the un­wit­ting in­fat­u­a­tion of Pip are like vine­gar and bak­ing so­da, they can’t help but re­act to­geth­er. The many strings and sub-plots weave such com­plex­i­ty that it is al­most sec­ond na­ture to feel that au­di­ences of the day were like­ly bet­ter able to ap­pre­ci­ate that depth of film­mak­ing, which is a rare com­mod­i­ty com­ing out of Hollywood the­se days. It was prob­a­bly rare then as well, but the post-mod­ern am­bigu­ous end­ing that would cul­mi­nate a sim­i­lar film to­day is no where to be found. In Dickens day, peo­ple want­ed every­thing ship­shape when they closed their book. Lean is his name­sake and well-done at that, in this in­stance. He has ex­cised enough ma­te­ri­al to make the film in­tel­li­gi­ble and not bor­ing, while re­tain­ing just enough to guide the view­er to where he should linger.

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There are, of course, stum­bles in this ef­fort. Often the tran­si­tions from skin-crawly creepy scene to light-heart­ed in­do­lence are jar­ring, and the mo­ti­va­tions and his­to­ry of a few char­ac­ters are woe­ful­ly but nec­es­sar­i­ly shunt­ed aside. Some of the clichés of adap­ta­tion-cin­e­ma are present as well, al­though in­con­sis­tent­ly. The open-book at the be­gin­ning, ex­act­ly quot­ed pas­sages from the book, and voice-over nar­ra­tion are present, but in­con­sis­tent. The film­mak­ing is ex­cel­lent how­ev­er, and the ap­prox­i­ma­tion of can­dle-light is a tes­ta­ment to the ex­cel­lence of the light­ing crew Lean put to­geth­er. It is pos­si­ble to sense some­thing like frus­tra­tion on Lean’s part; it seems as if he knows he could get more pathos out of the same ma­te­ri­al if he wasn’t bound to the task of adapt­ing a nov­el, some­thing that is dif­fi­cult at best, and im­pos­si­ble at worst. Like try­ing to film Don Quixote, for in­stance. I have three more adap­ta­tions to watch in the box set that came from the li­brary, so it is time to get start­ed on those, al­ready.

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