I didn’t have time to update my blog yesterday and, realistically, my blogging might be a bit hit and miss now as Christmas arrives, but I will try to write new postings as frequently as possible, even if my Dickens in December season ends up stretching into January. Just a few thoughts today on one of the greatest of all Dickens films.
In every adaptation of Great Expectations that I’ve seen (and there have been many, including two in the past year alone, both of which were disappointing, to me anyway), the beginning is one of the best scenes. The sight of the convict looming from behind the tombstone always makes a powerful impression – and its sense of danger is always there in the background behind everything that follows. However, the most unforgettable version of this opening on screen has to be the first scene of David Lean’s famous film, with young Pip (Anthony Wager) running across the windswept Kent marshes, and enduring his nightmare encounter with Magwitch (Finlay Currie).
This haunting sequence was filmed by Guy Green using a wide lens to show it all from the perspective of the young boy. But, watching this great film again this week in the BFI’s restored print on Channel 4, it struck me how well Lean succeeds in showing this opening from the viewpoint of both the child and that of the adult looking back (John Mills as narrator). The film fully shows how terrifying Magwitch is to the young boy, keeping all his spine-chilling threats, which are sometimes watered down in more recent versions. “Your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted, and ate.” Yet, at the same time, the convict’s own fear and hunger come across strongly, and it is clear how much he has in common with Pip, as two lonely figures who are being chased and pushed through this bleak landscape.
Wager, who was only 13, is excellent in this opening, and also in the scenes at the forge with his bullying sister (Freda Jackson) and her warmhearted husband, Joe (Bernard Miles). Sadly, Orlick is missing from this version – I’ve been complaining over the past couple of weeks about the absence of this violent character and his class hatred from the latest cinema adaptation, so I was rather surprised to realise that Lean had already cut him out in this version, which also has Mrs Joe dying off-screen from her weak heart. Biddy (Eileen Erskine) does appear (the BBC version last Christmas cut her out), but has been turned into a servant instead of the pupil-teacher whose determination to learn is equal to Pip’s. In general, the forge doesn’t get enough screen time – but it is impossible to fit all of Dickens’ novel into just two hours, and there is enough here to give a vivid impression of the Gargerys’ way of life, with an enjoyable brief turn by Hay Petrie as the self-satisfied Uncle Pumblechook.
However, the most memorable part of Pip’s childhood, and of the whole film, is the brilliant evocation of Satis House, the shadowy, cobweb-filled home of Miss Havisham and her ward Estella. Here, as in the marshbound opening, I think the film benefits enormously by being made in black and white, which helps to build the feeling of Gothic fantasy at a remove from reality. You don’t have to worry about the shadowy wedding cake being a health hazard, or even about the fact that Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) seems to stay the same age while everybody about her grows older, as if she really has stopped like the clocks. Jean Simmons, who was 17 at the time, is uncannily perfect as Estella, seeming a little like Alice in Wonderland as she matter-of-factly leads Pip through this strange world. And she makes Estella’s comments about the “common labouring boy” cut to the quick.
It’s a pity really that Simmons didn’t play Estella right through – this was only two years before she played Ophelia in Hamlet, and she would surely have been equal to it. Valerie Hobson seems too different to convince as the same person, and doesn’t give Estella the compelling, other-worldly quality that Simmons brings to the character. (I like Hobson better as a war wife who becomes an MP in contemporary British drama The Years Between, also made in 1946, a film I hope to write about here some time.) But Hobson was more of a name at the time, and maybe Lean felt that the age gap between Simmons and John Mills, who was 38, as the adult Pip would have been just too much.
Mills does seem much younger than he really was, and his expressive eyes work well as Pip takes everything in and slowly adapts to his new world – with painful class consciousness running through all of it. I especially like the way Mills’ voice modulates slightly as he gets used to being a “gentleman”, but not too much – there is no exaggerated poshness, and yet when Joe finally turns up to visit him in London, the gulf that has grown between them is suddenly apparent as soon as they speak.
The meal Pip shares with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) soon after arriving in London has the same potential for embarrassment as the earlier card game with Estella, except that Pocket’s warmth and delicacy get Pip through. Guinness had earlier played Pocket on stage in an adaptation of Great Expectations which he himself directed, and which inspired Lean to make the film. He clearly had a deep understanding of Herbert’s character and brings him to life beautifully. John Forrest, the boy who plays Herbert as a youngster, looks very like a younger version of Guinness, so it is easy to believe the two are the same.
Other good supporting actors in this film include Francis L Sullivan as overbearing lawyer Mr Jaggers (he had also played Jaggers in a 1934 version of GE which I haven’t managed to see as yet) and Ivor Barnard as Mr Wemmick, managing to make the character quite different in the office and at home even though he has very little screen time. There is only one scene with Wemmick and his Aged P (O.B. Clarence), but it is a great one.
The later scenes with both Miss Havisham and Magwitch and the adult Pip wonderfully echo those with the two characters and Pip as a boy. Now he sees them from a different angle, and they both become poignant figures rather than monsters – but the giant shadows in his memories are always there. A wind is blowing as Magwitch turns up on Pip’s doorstep, reminiscent of that wild wind on the marshes at the start. And the great fire scene with Miss Havisham brings out all the passion simmering under the surface. The film’s melodramatic ending takes place at Satis House, where Estella sits in Miss Havisham’s chair and is in danger of turning into her adoptive mother, until Pip tears down the curtains and lets in the light. This is different from either of the endings which Dickens wrote, and goes rather over the top – but to see the house’s contents all crumbling away into dust is a powerful moment, and another of the film’s many haunting scenes.
I do also love the BBC/Tony Marchant mini-series, which was able to include far more of the book, but the David Lean film is one of the greatest adaptations – and well worth returning to time and again. For anyone who wants more background, here is a link to an article about the film at the TCM site.