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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