Great Expectations – David Lean – UK 1946

Great Expectations – David Lean – UK 1946

adrin neatrour writes – What shines out of this Dickens’ adaptation is David Lean’s preoccupation with enchantment… Great Expectations – David Lean – UK 1946   John Mills; Alec Guinness; Joan Simmons (young Estelle); Valerie Hobson (old Estelle)
Viewed 20 May 07  at home on VHS video


Vistas of Enchantment
What shines out of this Dickens’ adaptation is David Lean’s preoccupation with enchantment.  The notion of the spell gives to the film its form which comprises a movement through of a series of  sets which are conjurated as heavy gaseous atmospherics through whose thickened air shamans emanate and  direct powers proper to their space.  The light has a frozen luminous quality.  It is a world of statues.  It is unchanging.  In Great Expectations each of the succeeding settings from the mist enveloped opening landscape of the Thames estuary through to the great high court is conceived as an atmosphere of psychic imprisonment.  The object of the film is little  concerned with the banality of  narrative, more with the idea of how each place castes its own spell and how the persona are not so much individuals but almost automata whose actions and reactions are functions of  the environments in which they are trapped.  Each location castes its own spell and each character moves as a fabled being through the life of the film.  The film is alive because its settings like a series of snares trap everyone.  It is a dark faerie world that operates through the cold fascination of the child rather than the equivocation of the adult.  A place where people do not fall in love but rather bewitch each other.  

David Lean’s creation of a faerie world is due to his vision and ability to unify the key components making up the atmospherics of enchantment.  The sets and costumes haircuts and hats all have an other-world quality that is of course offset by low key dramatic expressionistic lighting.  The acting style that he commands is an intrinsic  part of the crafting. The actors occupy their roles lightly almost as if they were mediums occupying only temporarily their bodies with external gestures and mannerisms. There is, of course, plot.  But the way in which Great Expectations is constructed devalues its importance.  Instead the film heightens and intensifies the idea of movement from world to world, space to space examining and dwelling on the nature of each place for the behaviour of those who have strayed there.  The end of the film is of course no end: Pip and Estelle, Pip having broken the spell of Mrs Haversham’s house, flee her world.  There is no promise in their flight that they will do anything other than either create another enchanted space or ( like Laurence of Arabia) die from want of enchantment.  Those who have experienced the faerie magic and danced to the music (however demented and exhausting) are forever doomed to seek it out again.  This is something David Lean seems to have well understood and the insight provides a thread that runs through all his films.

Perhaps David Lean was the sorcerer himself in the manner of the old school of British film makers.  Someone whose work was to bewitch, but who understood that the power to enchant is severely locally circumscribed.  It cannot happen in the maelstrom of change: enchantment needs conditions that have a timeless quality in which there is no consciousness of the passage of time.  (Those young folk taken by the faeries are away but for a night but return old, sometimes after the passing of centuries)  Lean’s Laurence of Arabia certainly has this quality which film takes place in the magical environment of the desert, a setting in which only God and the wind and sand are constants and timelessness is part of the landscape. O’Toole like the best of actors in Lean’s films seems to occupy a body( or should it be a swath of flowing robes) rather than possess it, and in Arabia, the filmic Laurence finds the setting in which his powers of enchantment are fully realised and released.

In Great Expectations Mrs Haversham of course has created and lives in one such timeless environment.  She has stopped the clock at the time when she was betrayed.  Everything is frozen in the statuesque light.  From this timeless space, like the bad faerie, she entraps the young unsuspecting souls in her net of malevolence priming them to replay her own psychic traumas for eternity. Like a time machine Great Expectations moves from setting to setting from the marshes to the solicitors office the forge and Court of Law.  It is not a movie that incorporates time as a medium per se but one which penetrates and gives visual form to archetypal places whose enchantment occupies us as much as we occupy them.
adrin neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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