Classic `Great Expectations' at Charles

MOVIE

David Lean's film from 1946 preceded masterpiece that inspired so many

March 05, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Look upon me!" commanded Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present. "You have never seen the like of me before!" Look upon the works of Dickens' best adapter, David Lean; we will never see the like of him again. When Lean, the total filmmaker, died at age 83 on April 17, 1991, the last creative giant of Britain's classical cinema was gone.

An acclaimed director of Noel Coward from the start of his career, Lean achieved his true artistic breakthrough with his thrilling rendering of Dickens' 1861 novel, Great Expectations (1946), which plays Saturday at noon and Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Charles. It has the lyricism, sweep and nuance that would inform his Lawrence of Arabia 26 years later and inspire generations of moviemakers - including The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson.

"Although I know nothing about music, I would have loved to have been a conductor," Lean once said. Throughout his career, Lean's conductor-like movie sense imbued entire sequences with the force and grace of symphonic overtures or climaxes. Great Expectations tells the story of a goodhearted orphan who gradually becomes a snob after he gains a bequest from a mysterious patron. A model adaptation, it's also a piercing and original piece of moviemaking.

Creating one of the attention-getting openings in the history of the cinema, Lean builds to a convict surprising his young hero in a rural church yard with an ominous audiovisual crescendo: atmospheric shots of Dickens' "bleak place overgrown with nettles," echoes of the wild marsh and the wind rustling spookily through the trees - then the sudden rattle of chains as the escaped prisoner, Magwitch (Finlay Currie) grabs the boy, Pip (played first by Anthony Wager, then by John Mills). No matter how many times you see and hear this film, that sequence still tingles the spine.

Three-quarters of the way through, Lean makes palpable the morbid obsessions of Miss Havisham (the marvelous Martita Hunt), Pip's twisted teacher of status, who has never recovered from being left standing at the altar. When she catches fire in her rotting bridal quarters, Pip tries to smother the blaze first with his cloak, then with a tablecloth that holds her long-festering wedding cake. The cloth splits in Pip's grasp and the camera follows the remnant as Pip frantically gathers it up and applies it to the smoldering old woman. The scene poetically encapsulates the horror of romantic fixation.

In between these high points, Lean guides a near-perfect cast through indelible, in some cases career-making performances, including Alec Guinness as Pip's roommate, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as the young and old versions of Pip's amorous ideal, and Francis L. Sullivan as his legal guardian. All contribute to the power of a film that fuses narrative and kinetic art.

Call 410-727-FILM or go to www.thecharles.com.

`The War Room'

Johns Hopkins' Office of Cultural Affairs continues its current film series - "Politics. As Usual." - with The War Room (1992), D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' behind-the-scenes documentary look at Bill Clinton's first presidential race. An engrossing view of a national campaign's semi-orchestrated chaos, it showcases the skill and commitment of political op James Carville before he became a caricature. We hear him coin several of his best bon mots, such as, "If I think of an old calendar, I think of George Bush." The screening takes place Thursday at 7:15 p.m., at the Mountcastle Auditorium of the Preclinical Teaching Building, 725 N. Wolfe St. Call 410-995-3363 or go towww.JHOCA.org.

`The Company'

Cinema Sundays at the Charles has rounded up an ideal guest speaker for its presentation of Robert Altman's dance movie The Company - Arleen Monahan, founder and director of the Maryland Ballet Theatre.

Starring Malcolm McDowell as a wily, charismatic artistic director and Neve Campbell as a soon-to-be-tested dancer, Altman's latest ensemble piece follows the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago through a typical (if fictionalized) year and captures imaginative and potent views of dance and the dancer's life. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Call 410-727-FILM or go to www.cine masundays.com.

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