Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Great Expectations (1946)

Not What I Was Expecting, Part 1: Being that my only experiences with Charles Dickens are the insufferable A Tale of Two Cities and Lord knows how many versions of A Christmas Carol, I wasn't expecting a film quite this... lively. David Lean's rousing rendition of the famed tale is, for me, the best evidence for Dickens's prowess as a storyteller -- all that needs to be done is to cut away all that excess verbiage and concentrate on how the story moves. And move this does -- from the moment young Pip sneaks off his guardian's farm to offer food to the escaped convict Magwitch, the story roars towards its destination like it's been set on fire, gathering steam and priceless details along the way. Lean's direction is appropriately lean yet solid in the classical sense (there's even a lovely little old-school travel montage of the type later fetishized by Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and he keeps the proceedings light while simultaneously bringing out the darker aspects of the story through careful lighting and framing. (I especially like the early shot where Magwitch, having been recaptured on the marshes, sits on a prison boat and stares back forlornly at young Pip until he's swallowed by shadow a la Bill Pullman in Lost Highway.) The energy rarely flags, and Lean is fortunate to have a well-cast group of exuberant thespians to bring out all the grand and grotesque notes in the source. Of particular note are Francis Sullivan as the lawyer Jaggers, all boisterous rumbling reason, and Alec Guinnes in his first major role as Herbert Pocket, the dandiest fop to ever dandy his way through Victorian England, but the whole ensemble does right by their characters. It's also interesting to note that Dickens, for all purposes, could be considered one of the first and finest practitioners of the Plant-and-Payoff narrative -- there's even a sly joke to that effect when Estella, the object of Pip's unrequited affection, tells him, "We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I." The climax could sum up the movie as being about the value of kindness in a cruel world, or it could just be about how some people are luckier than others. Whatever it is, it's hugely entertaining all the same.

Grade: A-


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