Great Expectations (1946)

Country: United Kingdom

Books written by Charles Dickens have been translated into the medium of film for years and years. From Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol, his stories have been made into musicals as well as animated films. Perhaps one of the most famous renditions of Charles Dickens’ immortal story Great Expectations is the 1946 film made by David Lean.

Lean is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in the world, and is revered by many famous directors. At the time Great Expectations was made, Lean was just starting to get noticed. He would then go on to make iconic films such as Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India, which immortalised him as the man with an epic vision. In fact Steven Spielberg had once said that he wanted to be a director after watching Lawrence of Arabia.

Lean’s impact in the world of cinema is therefore undeniable, and any fan of old films, or films based on books, or even David Lean, should never commit the sacrilege of not watching Great Expectations.

Pip, (played by Anthony Wager as a child and John Mills as an adult), is a poor orphan who is threatened by an escaped convict to give him food. Pip steals some and hands it over to the convict. Also during his childhood, an old rich woman, Miss Havisham (who was abandoned on her marriage day), calls Pip to spend time with her, paying her for his company. There he meets a cruel but absolutely beautiful teenager, Estella, with whom he later falls in love.

Many years later, Pip discovers that he has been taken under the wing of a secret benefactor, whose identity he is unsure of. As a result, Pip moves into the city and lives with Herbert Pocket (played by Alec Guinness) and rubs shoulders with high class people. Who exactly is this secret benefactor? Pip thinks it is Miss Havisham, but is he right?

John Mills is brilliant in his role here and though he was around 40 at the time the film was made, he makes the perfect Pip. Jean Simmons is another treat to watch, as the spoiled young Estella.  Not only does she look uncannily like Vivien Leigh, but also to an extent, acts like her in Gone with the Wind. Valerie Hobson plays the older Estella to perfection as well. There will probably be no Miss Havisham as iconic as the one played by Martita Hunt.

The film is an absolute visual treat. Though it is in black and white, its start contrasts and haunting images make for a completely different experience. One only has to see the scene where Pip finds Miss Havisham sitting in her bridal dress in front of a rotting wedding cake just to believe it.

The film is absolutely haunting, and its images will play in your mind after you finish watching it. Surely this has to be the best adaptation of Great Expectations ever.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you are a fan of David Lean. Also watch it if you want to see a great rendition of Dickens’ classic tale. For Alec Guinness fans, here is a sneak preview of him as a young man, before he went on to play Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia and Obi Wan Kenobi in the old Star Wars trilogy.

Avoid it if you cannot bear black and white movies. Any other reason to avoid it? Definitely not.

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Country: Japan

War is sometimes called inevitable. It is glorified as being necessary in order to eliminate certain evil, to protect one’s country, to defend its people. But what is mostly missed is the story of those caught up in a war that is not theirs.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) is an animated film about World War II and the lives of two orphans at a time when compassion and humanity are seemingly lost. 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko lose their mother during a bombing incident. Seita, who now finds responsibility hanging on his shoulders, has to take the help of his aunt, who slowly grows to resent the children during the difficult times. Unable to bear her selling his mother’s kimonos, Seita takes Setsuko along with him to an isolated bomb shelter where he thinks they can live independently.

However, food grows scarce, and though the children find temporary happiness by catching fireflies and watch them circle the bomb shelter at night, they are faced with despair in the morning, when the short-lived fireflies are all dead. These beautifully executed scenes are very symbolic in nature and help explain the futility and the death of hope in wartime.

If your exposure to animated films has been restricted to the ones made by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, this film can come as quite a shock. This is no fairy tale. There are no heroes or villains. Deaths are not implied, they are shown. The film is not gory, but some images may definitely be emotionally disturbing to sensitive viewers.

Isao Takahata, who established Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, is no unknown filmmaker. Along with Miyazaki, Takahata has created a number of wonderful animated films. To those who are unacquainted with his work, this is the first film Takahata has made on such a tragic subject. Due to its emotional impact and importance in retelling Japanese history, this film is shown in schools around the country, but is accompanied with Miyazaki’s heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) on DVD to lessen its depression quotient.

Considered by Roger Ebert to be ‘the greatest war film ever made’, Grave of the Fireflies does not take sides. Seita and Setsuko’s father is fighting the war on the Japanese side, and the children root for their father, who tells them that the Japanese side will win. Eventually though, the film does not take any side, apart from that of humanity.

Whether war is inevitable or glorious, or whether it is painful and futile is up for the viewer to judge. Without being didactic, Takahata’s masterpiece goes into the heart of war and uncovers the emotionally impactful story of two orphans.

The haunting score by Michio Mamiya is perfectly played with the visuals. It is sure to stay on your mind long after watching the film.

Note that the film is based on a novel by WWII survivor Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story as an apology to his younger sister. You might wonder what this apology was for, but for that it is either necessary to read the book or to watch the film.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch what can be called one of the most emotionally affecting films of all time. Watch it to see how realistic animation can be and how animated characters can be more real than actors.

Avoid it if you do not want to be depressed for days. Also avoid it if you expect characters to break out into song every once in a while and if you think animated films are for children and therefore have happy endings.