Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I should be up front when writing about Great Expectations. I’m not a fan of the writings of Charles Dickens. My mother is. This is a point of contention between us now and again. She touts Dickens, who I tend to think of as over-emotional and overwritten. I much prefer the work of Joseph Conrad, who my mother thinks is nothing but description, description, description. We’ll get to Conrad when I get around to Apocalypse Now; for today, it’s Dickens and all that that entails.
This is the story of Philip Pirrip (Anthony Wager as a boy, and John Mills as an adult), a name only Dickens could invent. Pip, as he is called, is an orphan living with his disagreeable sister (Freda Jackson) and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). As a lad, he encounters an escaped criminal named Abel Magwich (Finlay Currie). Pip helps him, but Magwich is recaptured. Not too long after that, Pip is summoned to the house of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt).
Miss Havisham is a spinster living in a huge old house. She is a queer duck, leaving her house constantly shaded. In one of her rooms, there is a wedding feast laid out and rotted away, covered in cobwebs. Also there is a young girl named Estella (Jean Simmons as a girl, Valerie Hobson as an adult). Estella is beautiful, but viciously mean to Pip, who falls in love with her anyway. He also meets a young man named Herbert Pocket (John Forrest initially, Alec Guinness eventually).
Things change the day Pip turns 14 and begins his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. Estella leaves around the same time, and we jump forward a number of years. Pip’s sister/Joe’s wife has died, and Pip is still learning the blacksmith trade. One day, they are visited by a London lawyer named Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), who tells Pip he is to be brought up in the manner of a gentleman through the graces of an unknown benefactor. Pip suspects Miss Havisham, but has no proof. In London, he moves in with Herbert Pocket and learns that Miss Havisham was abandoned at the altar, hence the ruined wedding feast. Additionally, he learns that Estella was raised by Miss Havisham with the express purpose of being a bane to men. And of course, when Pip is summoned back to Miss Havisham’s presence and Estella has returned, the old feelings blossom, and Pip learns that Estella has learned her lessons in destroying men only too well.
I guess that I can understand the charm of the story even if it’s one that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. There’s something interesting and appealing about a period drama, especially if it is also a period romance. The costumes are pretty spectacular, particularly Pip’s first outfit when he starts his life as a gentleman. I’m not sure exactly what to call that style of hat, and his bow tie is approximately the width of his shoulders.
But it’s more than just that. There’s an air to the Victorian period that seems to appeal to a good many people. There is a sense, however false, of a more genteel nature and a more refined world. Manners are paramount, as is civility, and causing insult can make for a huge loss of status. I get that. There’s a real sense of nostalgia in seeing these people acting in a manner so unlike the social customs of today, and there’s a real attraction in that. There’re fancy clothes and dancing and a great deal of pageantry. I get it.
What I have a hard time getting around is just how nasty many of these characters are. Pip’s love for Estella is completely unjustified—all she’s ever done to deserve it is be beautiful, and it’s disappointing that evidently her physical beauty is not only her one appealing trait, but also sufficient to make every man who sees her fall madly for her.
On top of that, Dickens was noted for his coincidences, and there’s no shortage of them here. It seems to me a weakness of story to depend on coincidences.
For all that, it’s a pretty entertaining story, and one worth seeing. The romance might be a stretch only because Estella doesn’t deserve it and Pip’s life becomes what it is through a tiny act of kindness and a massive amount of pure dumb luck. It makes it difficult to be hopeful or even care much about someone whose main positive trait is being staggeringly fortunate.
Why to watch Great Expectations: Period drama as pretty as you’ll find.
Why not to watch: Everything happens by chance and not by anyone’s actions.