Warning, iconoclast review ahead...
Okay, this is the fifth movie on the British Film Institute's Top 100, one of Charles Dickens' most acclaimed adaptations, a Best Picture nomination that made many distinguished critics agree on its being one of the finest British movies ever made.
Okay, that's a film that quite holds up to its title and I don't think I expected anything other than greatness with David Lean's "Great Expectations". I don't think I was disappointed either but to say the film was flawless would betray an intimate conviction I can't get rid of, well, I'll try to explicit my point without offending the fans.
It started well actually, the Philip Pirrup introduction reminded me of an episode of "Growing Pains" (yes, the Vermont one from Season One) and I never thought that "Pip" guy was an invention of Charles Dickens. I was like "oh, that's where it comes from". Then there's the ominous sight of the little boy (Tony Wager) wandering into the graveyard to put flowers in his parents' tombstone, and encountering Magwitch (Finaly Currie) the convict.
Great start. Both actors were so convincing and that scene alone heightened my expectations, I felt like it was the encounter between Cosette and Jean Valjean, anything but greatness would come from this encounter. The surrounding characters didn't disappoint either, the bossy and annoying sister (Freda Jackson), her patient and good-hearted blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles), all these Dickensian vibes transcended by a haunting black-and-white cinematography made me wish the childhood parts could last as long as possible, like "Oliver Twist" I guess.
And the childhood part kept on grabbing my interest with the part set at Mrs Havisham's mansion where Pip was invited to be the playmate of her adopted daughter Estella (an adolescent Jean Simmons) only to deal with her arrogance and verbal cruelty. What is it with this child only attracting people of the creepiest sort? Indeed, just when you expect some puppy romance to pop up, poor little Pip is constantly belittled and physically harassed by a cruel and harsh girl who can't see his love for her or just sees it too well and toys with it like a doll she expects to throw out.
And poor little Pip was too coarsely gentle, too shy to react properly and she was the first girl he ever knew so his heart was stolen forever but after that first disastrous day, he swears not to ever cry because of her and learn to get along with his new friend Herbert with whom he enjoys a few fighting games. But I make the film sound like something only about characters, but there's a whole atmosphere haunting it and everything seems to be rather contradictory in Pip's journey.
Indeed, in a scary graveyard he meets a dangerous criminal and yet this inspires Pip a strong outburst of generosity. In a beautiful mansion, he finds an old woman wearing wedding clothes and leaving the remains of a wedding ceremony to decay, and at that point, we're waiting for the answers. Yes, there must be a reason for Havisham's attitude, not to mention Estella's. "Great Expectations" did leave me with plenty of them.
The first twist of "Great Expectations" comes with the intrusion of a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) when Pip inherits some allowance from some unknown benefactor and becomes a true gentleman over the years, even a pure English snob through the mentorship of Herbert Pocket (a youngish Alec Guinness) and while the film doesn't lose any of its entertaining value there are just a few little problematic points that I can't ignore. I couldn't simply buy that this little boy could turn to John Mills, if anyone it should have been Guinness.
John Mills strikes me as the nicest actor ever but couldn't they have a younger actor? Guinness or how about a young Anthony Quayle? Mills was 38 years old and you can't make him pass as a 22 years let alone a 16-year old chap. Valeria Hobson plays a more believable Estella though it's hard to see her as the same girl played by Simmons. The casting was my main problem though Mills gave a great performance, he was just too old to be the counterpart of that kid. But there was another problem which is in the storytelling.
Cinema complicates everything, I know we were supposed to believe that Miss Havisham was the mysterious benefactor but I was convinced it was Magwitch from the start, otherwise why would the opening introduce us to him? I knew it was a matter of time before he would come up again and then I kept waiting for him while watching Pip enjoy his idle wealth in a sequence that was nothing new when you've seen many William Wyler movies, it was well done, well acted, well photographed but for some reason, it just left me cold.
Maybe it's because the material was too old or too conventional. 1946 was the year of a true English masterpiece: "A Matter of Life and Death", if you see "Great Expectations" after that, you're likely to be disappointed and feel yourself forced to praise the editing, the cinematography but was that new after "Rebecca"? I feel kind of guilty to diminish this film but it was obviously a case of compacting a rich and multilayered story into two hours of cinematic banality punctuated by some genuinely powerful scenes and a nice introduction. Maybe I should have lowered my expectations.
But who could expect that from such a title?
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