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Great Expectations


UK, 1946

Director: David Lean

Production: Rank/Cineguild; black and white, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released May 1947 by Universal-International Pictures.

Producer: David Lean; screenplay: David Lean and Ronald Neame with Anthony Havelock-Allan, Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern; from the novel by Charles Dickens; photography: Guy Green; editor: Jack Harris; art direction: John Bryan; music score: Walter Goehr.

Cast: John Mills (Mr. Pip); Anthony Wager (Pip as a boy); Valerie Hobson (Estella); Jean Simmons (Estella as a girl); Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery); Francis L. Sullivan (Jaggers); Finlay Currie (Magwitch); Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket); John Forrest (Herbert as a boy); Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham); Ivor Bernard (Wemmick); Freda Jackson (Mrs. Joe); Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummil); Eileen Erskine (Biddy); Hay Petrie (Uncle Pumblechook); George Hayes (Compeyson); Richard George (Sergeant); Everley Gregg (Sarah Pocket); John Burch (Mr. Wopsie); O. B. Clarence (Aged parent).

Awards: Oscars for Best Cinematography—Black and White and Best Art Direction, 1947.



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* * *

David Lean was the Great White Hope of postwar British cinema. In Which We Serve, which Lean co-directed with Noël Coward, was the most popular British film of the war years, and Brief Encounter was seen by the critics as a breakthrough into serious adult realism— though working-class audiences found Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's over-delicate sensibilities hard to comprehend. Great Expectations had a wider appeal. Richard Winnington, one of the most perceptive 1940s film critics, claimed it as "the first big British film to be made, a film that confidently sweeps our cloistered virtues into the open, it casts a complete spell derived from some inner power."

The film was a commercial success in Britain and America (so successful that Lean couldn't resist following it up with Oliver Twist), and it still stands out as one of the finest of all film adaptations of Dickens. John Bryan's art direction avoids the trap so many designers fall into of striving so hard to recreate authentic period detail that Dickens's richly imaginative world is lost amidst too solid and realistic sets. Bryan, in cooperation with the brilliant cinematographer Guy Green, succeeds in creating an evocative atmosphere which gives the film much of its power and resonance.

Lean, a showman as well as an artist, talks about the need to gain the attention of audiences with a dramatic opening sequence. In Great Expectations he succeeds almost too well: the evocation of the bleak East Kent marshes and Pip's nightmarish encounter with Magwitch in the churchyard sets such a standard of excitement that what follows is almost an anti-climax. It is to his credit, then, that he succeeds in moulding Dickens's rambling novel into a satisfying dramatic shape. Minor characters are sacrificed, but Finlay Currie's Magwitch, Martita Hunt's Miss Havisham, Bernard Miles's Joe Gargery, and Francis L. Sullivan's Jaggers are splendid creations against which all subsequent incarnations have to be measured. In comparison, John Mills's Pip is disappointingly colourless, and the metamorphosis of Estella from Jean Simmons to Valerie Hobson destroys the aura which surrounds her in the first half of the film.

Lean's interpretation of Dickens, like Olivier's interpretation of Shakespeare, is inevitably timebound. There will always be alternative ways of interpreting Great Expectations or Henry V, while a reinterpretation of Noël Coward's slight play which Lean transformed into Brief Encounter could only be a remake of the film.

Thus, where Brief Encounter's limitations—the prissiness of the lovers' attitudes to sex, the syrupy ending—seem movingly evocative of a lost age, Great Expectations's weaknesses—its lapses into whimsicality, the predominance of upper-middle-class accents— seem correctable faults. That said, no other film or television adaptation of Great Expectations has managed to achieve anything like the dramatic intensity and visual richness of Lean's film. Magwitch appearing like a terrifying apparition in the windswept churchyard; Miss Havisham and Estella in their eerie, cobweb-strewn mansion; the journey out to the riverside inn and the disastrous rendezvous with the packet steamer—these are so memorably filmed as to haunt the imagination for years afterwards.

—Robert Murphy

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