Film review, by Jason Day, of Great Expectations, David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Victorian novel about a poor boy who becomes a privileged man thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Starring John Mills and Valerie Hobson.
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Young orphan Pip (Tony Wager) lives with his abusive elder sister (Freda Jackson) and her gentle, blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles) on the Kent coast. In spite of his sister’s rages, he is content but a series of strange encounters rock his idyllic world.
After being up-ended by escaped criminal Magwitch (Finlay Currie) and forced to steal food for him, he is summoned to entertain rich local recluse Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt).
Pip is captivated and insulted in turn by her beautiful adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons), a fateful meeting which sets Pip on a course of lifelong love for her.
Years later, he is a young apprentice smithy (John Mills) and learns that he has come into money. Assuming it to be from Miss Havisham, he bids her goodbye and moves to London. The road to becoming a good, well rounded man is not an easy one and Pip has many lessons to learn.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
My father’s family name being Pirrip and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both those names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip…John Mills (as the adult Pip) narrates the opening of Great Expectations (1946).
Dickens’ novels, with their lucid, visually descriptive text and frequent denouements thanks to the episodic nature of his writing, means he lends himself well to cinema adaptations.
So much so, you have to wonder how good a screenwriter he would have made if he had lived another 70 years.
Great Expectations has been a GCSE English literature staple for years I read it for my own GCSE and loved the book.
Here, it found the perfect adaptation team in David Lean and Ronald Neame, who turn Dickens’ arrestingly funny, bizarre and enlightening fable into a piece of pure celluloid magic.
The way for a film director to grab his audience is the same way a writer does – in the first few minutes or sentences. And Lean and Neame make sure those first few reels of film count for everything.
The mournful melancholy of Dickens’ novel fizzes to life, the wind whistles around the Kent coast, a hangman’s gibbet awaiting Pip as he trots to his forbears graves.
It’s a suitably foreboding atmosphere for Pip to be introduced to Magwitch with a delicious silent movie feel. The first three minutes of this movie are hair raisingly mute – the expressionist tilt to the land, the creaking of the trees whose branches stretch our like spindly tendrils.
NB: That same wind later whips around Pip’s London home, signalling Magwitch’s return.
Silent though that opening is, the dialogue is top drawer when the talking starts and the score is used innovatively (music represents the violent Mrs Gargery’s voice when she shrieks at Pip).
The acting is splendid across the board, from Mills and Hobson down to the tiniest supporting performer.
Hobson isn’t an actress modern audiences are too familiar with, but back in the 1940’s she was one of British cinema’s brightest stars. At this point, she was married to Great Expectation‘s producer Anthony Havelock-Allen but was more famous for her career as a Hollywood ‘scream Queen’ when she was a teenager (The Bride of Frankenstein and Werewolf of London, both 1935).
Here, with her imperious, chilling performance as an emotional black hole society lovely, she cemented her persona as a ‘Rank Film Organisation’ darling.
Mills was one of our brightest movie stars. He uses his slim, angelic looks and determined, generous, diplomatic nature to produce what could be called the perfectly pitched Pip.
Of the support performances, there are too many to single out for individual acclaim, so let’s settle on Martita Hunt and a very young Jean Simmons.
These two women are locked in a cobweb strewn battle for Estella’s heart and soul that mirrors internal and external events and the actresses ham it up to a crescendo of melodramatic movie magnificence. Simmons was only 18 when the movie was released and would go on to become a Hollywood legend. Hunt sealed her cinematic immortality as the ultimate film Havisham.
One last squeak – Alec Guinness as the adult Herbert Pocket. Sheer bliss!
What a book. What a movie.
Read the novel and then see this film. On both counts, you will not be disappointed.
Cast & credits
Director: David Lean. 1hr 58 mins/118 mins. Cineguild. (PG)
Producers: Anthony Havelock-Allen, Ronald Neame.
Writers: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allen, Kay Walsh, Cecil McGivern.
Camera: Guy Green.
Music: Walter Goehr.
Sets: John Bryan.
John Mills, Tony Wager, Valerie Hobson, Jean Simmons, Bernard Miles, Francis L. Sullivan, Finlay Currie, Martita Hunt, Alec Guinness, Ivor Barnard, Freda Jackson, Torin Thatcher.