I watched the BBC’s recent 3-hour version of Great Expectations (2011) last night and was left with one thought: why hasn’t anyone told Estella’s story? She’s waaayyyy more interesting than Pip.

Nota bene: while this version is fine — and Gillian Anderson does indeed make an eery Miss Havisham — who can take seriously the notion that this Pip (Douglas Booth) hasn’t been kidnapped for use as a male prostitute?

Pip is a nice kid, to be sure, but he’s also self-pitying, predictable, and somewhat delusional re: Estella. In contrast, Estella is riveting. Adopted as a tiny child by Miss Havisham, the only life she has ever known has been within the weird world of Satis House, where her benefactress teaches her to destroy the hearts of men.

The “great expectations” people have for Pip consist of the notion that he might become something other than a blacksmith. Yawn. Whereas Miss Havisham expects Estella to enact revenge on men. Now that’s interesting.

The BBC’s most recent Estella (Vanessa Kirby, above) is very beautiful and conflicted indeed, but I liked the child version (Izzy Meikle-Small, left) even better — she’s got a set to her jaw and a cock to her eyebrow that indicate a relish for the lessons she receives from her adopted mother. It appears quite realistic that a 12 yr-old girl would enact such a persona con gusto, particularly if she has allowed herself to believe that she is beautiful and that there is no reality outside Satis House.

But she doesn’t, does she?

And thus begins their complicated relationship.

Jean Simmons in the 1946 film adaptation

Seen from Pip’s point of view, Satis House and its awful, decades-old decaying wedding decorations constitute a bizarre, topsy-turvy world, and he mixes his growing love for Estella with his fascination with this world of books and wealth and objects … as well as with his interest in saving her from its corruptions. Seen purely through his eyes, Estella has been led astray by Miss Havisham’s madness but retains an essential goodness in her soul.

Or so he believes. But then, these are the beliefs of an essentially boring person. What might it look like through her eyes?

Claire Redcliffe in a 2008 theater production in Manchester, Eng.

Estella is both better educated and smarter than Pip is, and has a strong sense of irony. When he asks about the house’s odd name, she explains that it means enough. “It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think,” she adds with a lovely bit of acidic implied commentary on how things have changed since it was named. Pip just stands there with his mouth open.

How might the story look if she were fleshed out, if we explored that odd life she lives inside Miss Havisham’s mausoleum? Rather than merely see her through Pip’s eyes — Pip, who loves her stupidly and believes she is truly good inside that heartless exterior (yawn, again) — how might she describe her own life?

Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, in the 1998 Alfonso Cuarón film that placed the whole thing in modern times

Such a tale could say a very great deal about the prisons inhabited by 19th-century women, in which their sole purpose as young, lovely things is to prepare themselves for marriage. Miss Havisham has sought to undermine this only insofar as she wants Estella to make herself as cold as ice, impervious to love and capable of destroying the hearts of that sex who ruined her all those years earlier.

Of course, we know Estella has a mind of her own. When Pip punches the pompous little Herbert Pocket in the eye, she lets him kiss her. She’s smart enough to know that Miss Havisham is not all wrong. What does love gain a woman? The deployment of her heart is the only way she might have a degree of power in society. It should not be seen as merely a “natural” sign of woman’s weakness.

And yet, what does her lovelessness get her? She marries the cruel Drummle — for what? He has no heart, either, so in exchange for her coldness she gets abused. All those years of building a heart of ice, simply to learn that it has achieved nothing. The book tells us virtually nothing about their marriage, which is precisely why we need a retelling of this tale.

Such a tale would also have something to say about relationships between mothers and daughters. Later in life, when Estella returns from gaining her European education, Miss Havisham learns that she has done far too good a job with her adopted daughter, who lacks love so utterly that she can barely stand to be in her mother’s presence. We are supposed to receive this news as yet more irony for the bitter old woman — but how different might that scene appear if we knew that Estella was exacting revenge on Miss Havisham even more than on the entire male sex?

Even better, it would illuminate that divide between a woman’s exterior appearance — and all the baggage piled on top of the question of a woman’s beauty — and her inner life, a life and intellect she learns to conceal from view.

And finally there’s the rich vein of subject matter concerning Estella’s mysterious parentage. Considering Dickens’ near-obsession with lineage and family, Estella’s story could be far more interesting if one of her major goals in life is to find her true parents and the story of her adoption, rather than have them hidden from her forever.

I’m telling you, there’s meat on these here bones. Estella beats out every other character in the book for great character potential; in any reasonable person’s retelling, Pip would be reduced to a secondary or tertiary character. C’mon, creative friends: who’s going to take on this job of giving us The Girl of Satis House?

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Remember last spring, when the Hitchcock “For the Love of Film” Blog-A-Thon was raising money? All our funds went into the preservation of the film The White Shadow, one of the earliest films on which Alfred Hitchcock worked before becoming a director. The work has been completed, a beautiful soundtrack created, and the whole thing — that is, the extant 48 minutes discovered rotting in a New Zealand shed last year — can be viewed at the National Film Preservation Foundation site.

It’s just gorgeous, this preservation work. I particularly love those shots of the risqué Nancy (above), just smoking her cigarette, as the beautiful clouds of smoke swirl around her. In the lead role, Betty Compson is  terrifically unknowable — elusive, eminently watchable.

At the time of the Blog-A-Thon I watched early Hitchcock films featuring Anny Ondra, Hitch’s first blonde, that delightful actor who spanned the gulf between light humor and melodrama so nicely. But Compson is another thing entirely — rich with inner depths. She also made a now-lost film with Hitchcock called Woman to Woman (1924) and starred in a Hitchcock-written, British-produced film called Dangerous Virtue (1924).

Now, on to more important things: what are our long weekend movie-watching plans? I’ll you one thing: there’s going to have to be one film at the theater (but which one?) and one period drama (I’m thinking that recent Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson). Just as important: here’s hoping that my attempt to reproduce my mother’s stuffing succeeds, and that we have enough butter in the house. More soon, friends.

 

“Father, father, where are you going?
Oh do not walk so fast!
Speak, father, speak to you little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.”

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.
William Blake, “Little Boy Lost,” Songs of Innocence

Men and women learn different lessons from the movies about the loss of innocence.  For women, loss of innocence always seems to be sexual; for men it’s something far more interesting, political, profound — and is often contrasted to sex.  William Blake’s 18th-century poems weren’t the first to characterize those gender differences, and we keep reiterating them now.

I got onto this subject due to a conversation about my list of best films, which led me to watch “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” again — about privileged, popular Julien (Gaspard Manesse), whose Catholic boys’ school hides three Jewish boys during the darkest days of 1944.  He competes most with Jean (an angelic-looking Raphaël Fejtö), who’s just as smart and well-read as Julien, and plays the piano so beautifully that he impresses the lovely piano teacher they all have crushes on.

This scene is the perfect exemplar of the mood of much of the film:  Julien is still a child, such that you cringe with the fear he’ll torment Jean for all the petty reasons boys bully each other.  Yet he’s also beginning to be tempted by girls. One of its sweetest scenes takes place late at night, as the two boys read the sexiest bits from The Arabian Nights and wonder what they mean.  The film keeps reminding you that they’re neither boys nor men:  one night, as the boys sleep, Julien wakes himself up from what you initially think is a wet dream.  Actually he’s wet the bed.

Their innocence makes the many small betrayals of the Nazi era all the more horrific, betrayals that begin to creep into the edges of their world.  At first, the boys only notice the sexual crimes.  Julien’s older brother accuses their mother of having affairs and flirting with men — even Nazi soldiers — because her vanity makes her weak.  The hobbled, working-class boy who works at the school and sells stamps and marbles to schoolboys on the sly cries out in anguish, in front of everyone, when his love abruptly leaves him.  But then the “real” crimes begin — and the film makes sure we see them as such.  Vichy collaborator police demand that a Jewish diner leave a restaurant; the schoolboys engage in antisemitic banter, not knowing their classmates are Jews.

But the worst betrayal is Julien’s, shortly after he learns the truth about Jean’s real identity.  When the Nazis arrive at the school and demand that the priests turn over the Jewish boys, it is Julien’s frantic glance at his friend that leads them straight to Jean.  As the soldiers march the three boys out of the grounds, Julien and Jean wave goodbye to each other — one of those beautifully awful moments that acknowledges and forgives Julien’s betrayal, and perches the viewer in between the false hope that Jean will survive the camps and the knowledge that he won’t.  Innocence lost.

There are other films, too, that explicitly show that a boy’s sexual awakening has nothing to do with his “real” loss of innocence.  Think of Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” a semi-autobiographical tale of a lonely boy in the early 80s drawn to the skinheads who give him a sense of belonging — and even a girlfriend — but the real story comes when he must make a decision about his friends’ racism.

Or “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in Indonesia in the early 60s.  Even though Linda Hunt was categorized as a supporting actor (and won the Academy Award), her male character, Billy Kwan, is truly the film’s protagonist.  Kwan dreams of a revitalized nation under a righteous leader and believes that Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), an Australian foreign correspondant, can help realize and publicize the newly-installed Sukarno as that good man; to urge Hamilton to become more invested in the country, Kwan introduces him to the elegant and seemingly unattainable Jill (Sigourney Weaver).  But as beautiful as Gibson and Weaver are — their love scenes were the hottest things I’d ever seen when I first saw the film as a kid — they are merely bit characters in a larger drama about lost innocence. (And how ironic that Mel Gibson has betrayed us since, just as his ambitious character is so disappointing to Kwan in the film.)  When Hamilton realizes how much he failed Kwan, he recalls Kwan’s voice telling him that “all is clouded by desire” — a lesson to men everywhere that women and sex are mere illusions that cloud their understanding.

Or my favorite film of all time, Carroll Reed’s magnificent “The Third Man” (1949),  in which the cheerful American (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna looking for his old buddy, Orson Welles — but finds instead that postwar Europe has no place for love, hope, or an easy good guy/bad guy dichotomy, as shown in the classic scene in the ferris wheel.  Cotten wants Welles’ old girlfriend, but his crush is merely another example of his deluded optimism.  Reed even goes so far as to take the film away from Cotten in the end, turning Welles into the anti-hero protagonist as he races through Vienna’s sewers to escape the police — such that the viewer becomes just as disoriented as poor Joseph Cotten.  Every time I see the film it hits me powerfully as a reminder of the contrast between Americans’ postwar optimism and European malaise, a malaise it would take decades for us to realize and wrestle with.

In each film, sex gets portrayed as a mere sideline issue for male protagonists.  These films teach us that for men, love and sex aren’t the most profound aspects of a man’s life; but they’re crucial to films about the loss of female innocence.  One need only think of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) descending from sexual respectability in “The House of Mirth” and the film/book’s long literary tradition of similar cautionary tales, right up to the beautiful “An Education” of last year.  If Bart becomes tragic in “House of Mirth,” “An Education” is a bildungsroman — Carey Mulligan’s relationship with Peter Sarsgaard sours, but it’s nevertheless love and sex that serve as the transformative educational juncture in her life.

It’s a great film but a small triumph for female characters.  Maybe I’m missing something and there’s a film in which a female protagonist’s love turns out to be a mere side issue in her coming-of-age or loss-of-innocence tale, while she is awakened to broader matters of the political or adult world.  But after racking my brain for an example of this, I’m still struck by the contrast of Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” and “Little Girl Lost” poems — for girls, it’s always about sex, and for boys it’s decidedly not.

These narratives matter.  They affect how men and women see their own life stories.

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.

In the age of gold,
Free from winter’s cold,
Youth and maiden bright,
To the holy light,
Naked in the sunny beams delight.

William Blake, “Little Girl Lost,” Songs of Experience