Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Not Great, but Almost as Expected

Great Expectations. 1934. Dir. Stuart Walker. Perf. Henry Hull, Phillips Holmes, Jane Wyatt, Florence Reed, Alan Hale, Rafaela Ottiano.

Great Expectations the film opens with little Pip (Holmes) sitting in a graveyard, staring glumly at the row of stones that mark the graves of his parents and a good number of siblings. Pip is scrawny enough that one almost wonders how he survived, given the unhappy fate of his kinsmen, although there is little enough time for pondering before the movie springs to action with the appearance of an unkempt stranger. From there, Walker's film proceeds along the same lines as Dickens' novel, if one forgives a great deal of simplification and moralization. The ending, in particular, is adapted to fit Hollywood ideals. Dickens was not a man of Hollywood ideals, and the film's ending does the novel an injustice here.

The cinematography is good for its time although simple in comparison with some more modern films. The sets are elaborate and elegant, although a little too contrived. Walker and his editors do a good job with their script, managing to give many of the minor characters personalities of their own while still allowing the story to focus on Pip's expectations. Estella (Wyatt) is surprisingly humane, and Walker adds a little intrigue to the story by giving Estella herself a little character development. In her early scenes, Estella is still a little girl struggling to learn her lessons; as the film progresses, she grows more flirtatious, although Wyatt never fully captures the icy haughtiness of Dickens' Estella. Pip himself, though a central character, shows very little development; Holmes, although interesting, fails to grow within his character so that Pip throughout the film remains constant yet dull.

Virginia Hammond presents a surprisingly strong performance, for all its simplicity, as Mr. Jaggers' maid Molly. In her few brief scenes, she manages to portray more passion than most of the other characters combined, and she beautifully portrays all the intricacies of Dickens' Molly, although her role in the film is featured more prominently than in the novel. On the contrary, Francis Sullivan gives a disappointingly weak performance as an overweight and rather flimsy Jaggers. Although the lawyer's great skills are highly touted in both book and film, Sullivan appears incapable of much more than sitting.

Overall, the film varies from the book often in plot but rarely in emotion, giving it a nice Dickens feel with taints of the 1930s. Ultimately an enjoyable film, it could provide a few hours of fun but would be a poor choice for anyone pursuing all the nuances of Dickens' work on film, as would most cinematographic versions. Go read the book before you watch this film.

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