Friday, 5 December 2008
Lean times, with Guinness
Oh, what a fool I was to think David Lean's Dickens films were just a couple more Hollywoodised adaptations. I suppose in those days I was such a puritan fanatic of the novels that any inevitable trimmings raised a groan - how, for example, could he leave creepy Orlick out of the drama of Great Expectations?
Now, I guess, I accept that a book is one thing and a one-and-a-half- to two-hour film quite another. How accomplished is the narrative drive of Lean's Great Expectations, how broody and cleverly composed his scenes on the marshes. Of course, said a cineaste to me earlier this week: don't you know that the Pip-Magwitch sequence at the beginning is one of the classics of film theory? Well, I didn't - but I appreciate it more now. I love how much of Dickens' dialogue gets accommodated, and how well it's delivered by the well-modulated voices of Martita Hunt and John Mills. Hunt even makes us feel sympathy for Miss Havisham.
So after revisiting this we realised we'd never seen Lean's Oliver Twist either, and prioritised that with LoveFilm. My word, the shadows and the faces: worthy of Kozintsev and Trauberg and their Soviet 'Factory of the Eccentric Actor' stable back in the 1920s and '30s. Alec Guinness's Fagin overdoes the nose-putty, but it must have been rather courageous to go along with the Jewish character like that just after the war. Could two performances be more different than Guinness's humorous, alert Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and his nasty, unsentimentalised king of thieves (pictured at the top with two of Lean's outstanding child actors, John Howard Davies as Oliver and Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger)?
Guinness was a genius. I've never been half as moved by any of Olivier's or Gielgud's performances on film (and I only saw Gielgud once on stage, as Julius Caesar, but I remember more vividly Ronald Pickup's Cassius - perhaps because I was playing the part at school at the time - and Mark McManus's Anthony). Last year we worked our way through the BBC Smiley series, and marvelled at Sir Alec's subtlety. And to round off our mini-festival of British cinema, J called up Tunes of Glory, directed by Lean's former cinematographer Ronald Neame without much visual splendour, but featuring a great double act from Guinness's roistering Scot and John Mills as the tormented, up-tight army man sent to replace him as commanding office of the regiment.
Interesting that Guinness gets the lion's share of the poster art there. Mills is just as remarkable, as indeed he was in Scott of the Antarctic, which so surprised me when I was indulging myself in classes on the Vaughan Williams symphonies (the film music works much better than its concert-hall spinoff). We think only of English stiff-upper-lippery, but how good Mills was at conveying the turmoil beneath. And Tunes of Glory is all about that inner chaos: James Kennaway's script may be short on external action, but how deep it goes in its psychology as both the Guinness and Mills characters try to smother the fallout from the Second World War. How touching Mills was, too, shortly before his death, as old Chuffey in the magnificent BBC serialisation of Martin Chuzzlewit.
And now, can you believe, I have to find a cinema screen big enough to do justice to Lawrence of Arabia, which I've still not seen.