The Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations” could not have been in better hands than David Lean’s. Though his later works would be the ones to earn him accolades, this film is just as special. Few directors can make a film feel grandiose while still paying close attention to the details like Lean. “Great Expectations” is a film with as much power on-screen as the literary classic it came from. It also calls attention to what’s between the lines of Dickens’ pages.
It helps that the “Great Expectations” is a classic story: a young common boy who aspires to be a wealthy gentleman; a strange old woman who stays in doors and lives with her beautiful young daughter; a mysterious benefactor –all unique twists on conventional archetypes. The young Pip is a likable lad with a strong inclination for good who meets the old Miss Havisham and her daughter Estella who change his world view forever.
Lean’s choice of black and white is the first stroke of brilliance with this film. That’s simply the kind of story that “Great Expectations” is. Nothing to do with being an old novel, but when you think of the dark, shadowy mansion of Miss Havisham and the beginning scenes in the Church graveyard, light and dark is huge metaphor in Dickens’ story and there’s no better way to establish that contrast than use of black and white.
Then there’s the suspense and intrigue Lean brings to this story. The shadows and howling winds are just part of what makes this such an interesting film. Boiled down, the story of Pip becoming a gentleman is driven by the mystery of who his benefactor is (and partially what will become of his love for Estella). Without a lot of explicit conflict, that puts a lot of responsibility on Lean and needless to say he delivers. He increases tension at key scenes to drive up our interest and picks a few intensely compelling shots at crucial moments. He demonstrates an exceptional understanding of Dickens’ text.
Topping off the film are its memorable characters. Top-notch performances from John MIlls as 20-year-old Pip, Alec Guinness as his friend Herbert Pocket and some terrific character roles: Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Freda Jackson as the story’s lovable simpleton, Mr. Joe Dargery. Each character represents something substantial in a Dickens story and it’s abundantly clear in this sterling adaptation.
Great Expectations (1946)
Directed by David Lean
Written by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, Kay Walsh, Charles Dickens (novel)
Starring John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness