In David Lean’s adaptation of the classic Dickens novel, young Pip (Tony Wager) is a naive orphan living with a blacksmith and his wife near the marshlands. One day, while visiting the graves of his parents, an escaped convict asks Pip to bring him food, threatening him with a horrible death. Gullible but good hearted Pip brings the man some food, but fears he will be in trouble for it. When the convict is captured, he claims to have stolen the food from the blacksmith’s house himself, sparing Pip any consequences of his actions.
Later, Pip is requested by Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to become playmates with her adopted daughter, Estella (Jean Simmons). The old woman wears her wedding dress and is surrounded by cobwebs and the decay of her wedding day that never came to be. She has closed out the sun and stays in the room with the long table, set for her wedding. Estella is a bratty girl who fiercely looks down upon Pip and thrives on building him up just to demoralize him. The pretty girl’s constant pushing and pulling on Pip only makes him pine for her. She seems heavily influenced by Miss Havisham, perhaps a tool for revenge against all men.
When Pip (now played by John Mills) is in his late teens, he learns that a mysterious benefactor has arranged for him to go to London to become an educated gentleman. There he becomes roommates with Herbert Pockets (an amazingly young Alec Guinness in his first speaking role), and learns the fine arts of fencing, dancing, boxing and having lavish sophisticated parties. Pip and Herbert carelessly rack up more expenses than they plan and Pip realizes his wealth is turning him into a snob. When he finds out who his benefactor is, he decides to return the favor.
The greatest thing Lean brings to this classic story is an intense visual experience. The marsh scenes in the beginning feel nearly surreal with so much fog and characters shown in so much shadow that they nearly become silhouettes at times. In the scenes with Miss Havisham, the gloom she surrounds herself in feels so real, I could believe in a woman who stays in the dark with her decades old wedding cake. There’s something haunting about the photography that has a heightened feel or reality, at times it feels like the movement is happening in fast-forward. It’s hard to explain, but somehow this fluidity on screen gave me the idea that everything felt so real and yet dreamlike. I believe it’s just David Lean working his movie magic.
Sometimes it feels like classic novel adaptations are just a dime a dozen. Within this blog, I’ve seen more than one really cares to, and usually the film doesn’t do anything more special than give you the basic watered-down story in a quicker time frame. Dickens is an author we all should read more, but if you do want to see a film depicting his work, this may be it. There will always be inconsistencies and not every detail from the novel will make it on film. But what Lean brings to the screen only heightens what Dickens wanted to put in our imagination.
“Come close. Look at me. You aren’t afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since before you were born?”