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UK Certificate: PG
US Certificate: PG
Intended audience: Older children and adults
Content warning: Some scenes potentially frightening for younger children
David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations is one of the greatest films ever made. A vivid, atmospheric, rigorously cinematic take on the Charles Dickens novel shot in gorgeous monochrome, it has a very special place in my heart, certainly one of my top five all time favourites.
For those unfamiliar with the story, orphaned blacksmith apprentice Pip finds his lifelong ambition to become a wealthy gentleman a reality when a mysterious anonymous benefactor provides him with the means. As his social circle changes, he finds he is at last able to woo the love of his childhood, the beautiful Estella. But Estella’s bitter and vengeful guardian Miss Havisham has other ideas (“Who am I, for heaven’s sake, that I should be kind…”).
Lean and his screenwriter Anthony Havelock Allan ambitiously sprint through the entire novel to get a running time of just under two hours. In the process, they inevitably excise entire subplots and characters, and yet Lean did not simply film what was left. He refashioned it into some of the most iconic and memorable sequences of all time, emphasising what worked for the big screen and ditching what didn’t.
Take for example the nightmarish opening in the graveyard on the marshes (which has been endlessly imitated in countless horror films). Or the eerie sequences in Miss Havisham’s house and the fire that destroys her. Throughout, Lean’s brilliant direction and Guy Green’s cinematography prove a potent mix. The endlessly innovative camera angles were ahead of their time, and the use of dolly shots in particular decades later would be popularised by the likes of Steven Spielberg.
Cast-wise, the unforgettably colourful characters of Dickens’s novel come brilliantly to life. John Mills excels as Pip, even if really he was too old for the role. Alec Guinness is a great deal of fun in his first major screen role as Mr. Pocket. Martita Hunt makes a wonderfully cruel Miss Havisham, Finlay Currie is unforgettable as Magwich, and Bernard Miles’s dignified, kind Joe Gargery perfectly captures the essence of his character. Speaking of Joe, the scene near the end of the film where Pip wakes up to realise Joe has cared for him throughout his illness, despite the way Pip treated him, still has the power to bring a tear to my eye every time I watch it (“Please don’t be so good to me…”).
However, my favourite character in Great Expectations is Mr. Jaggers the lawyer. At first, he appears cynical, brash and tactless, but although he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he is ultimately revealed as a profoundly humane individual, or as his assistant, Wemmick says “deep as Australia”. Francis L Sullivan’s portrayal is utterly definitive.
Alas, it is in the area of casting that the only slight blip in this otherwise flawless gem of a film emerges. Jean Simmons was ideal as the young Estella, but her adult counterpart Valerie Hobson is merely adequate. I can’t help but think someone like Vivien Leigh would have been far better, and after digging a little deeper into the films production history I discovered she had been considered for the part, but Hobson was producer Ronald Neame’s niece, which explained why she was chosen instead.
Although set in the Victorian era, the spiritual messages and lessons of both the book and film remain timeless. Love, friendship, class prejudice, bitterness, revenge, and the nature of good and evil are all explored thoroughly. Pip’s simple act of kindness in the opening scenes sets in motion a chain of events that brings to mind Matthew 25 where God speaks of the reward of the righteous; “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
Ultimately Pip is rewarded for his actions, and that is why for me, the film’s controversial but unambiguously happy ending (a slight departure from the book) is a stroke of genius. When Pip returns to Miss Havisham’s house to lay to rest the ghost of his childhood, there is something emotionally exhilarating and spiritually thrilling in the way he defiantly yells “I have returned to let in the sunlight!” before ripping down the boards on the windows. This speaks metaphorically of breaking free from prisons of bitterness and the spiritual curses we have brought on ourselves, and to my mind is a brilliantly satisfying conclusion to one of my all-time favourite films.