Director David Lean would probably be the first to classify his 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as falling somewhere into the ‘little gem’ category; a forgivable oversight, considering Lean’s later career as the indisputable orator of the thinking man’s epic. Fair enough, Great Expectations – the movie – is hardly a literal translation of Dickens’ literary masterpiece. Nor is it exactly a derivation of the slimmed down stagecraft that had so impressed Lean; enough to hire the play’s writer (none other than Alec Guinness – who also played Herbert Pocket) and Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham) to reprise their roles in his movie. But from the moment our story begins along the lonely windswept marshes, right until the penultimate revelation, when a grown Phillip Pirrip (‘Pip’ for short and played by the charismatic John Mills) strips away the cobwebs of the past – literally and figuratively - for his beloved Estella (Valerie Hobson), Great Expectations assumes a mantle of quality unlike most any other cinematic adaptation; capturing the essence and the sentiment of the novel without remaining slavishly devoted to its particulars.
And Lean has taken on a formidable task in translating one of the most celebrated works from an equally esteemed English writer; remarkably doing justice to both, while never wavering from his devotion to either. Lean eases Dickens’ wordy prose into a manageable and thoroughly compelling screenplay (co-written by Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern) while infusing the story with those intangible assets only the language of cinema can provide. The moldering decay of Miss Havisham’s crumbling estate, the spookily lit graveyard and marshes, oozing dampness and fog from the peripheries of the screen, the claustrophobic law offices of the rather spurious, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), and finally, the gaiety and congestion of a bustling London, circa 1860 - cluttered with horse-drawn coaches and public hangings in the square; these exemplars of a bygone era have been superbly recreated by Production Designer John Bryan and Art Director William Shingleton; tastefully photographed in stark B&W by Guy Green, and, plainly witnessed by anyone with the power of sight.
What is less quantifiable is Lean’s extraordinary ability to digest such copious material at a glance, to make the settings serve the story and not merely impress us with their detail and size, but with a lot of dumb show set before them, steeped in healthy dollops of romanticized melodrama. No, Great Expectations – the movie - is, as Dickens himself might had envisioned; an epic tragedy of the human heart - untamed by even the most crippling melancholy, yet equally incapable of eschewing its lingering angst, implanted like an arrow plunged deep into the bosom of our young, though hardly impressionable boy.
Pip (first played with incredible solipsism by Anthony Wagner) is an astute observer of life’s cruelties, having lost both parents at an impressionable age, and now made to bear the wickedness of his brittle, harridan sister (Freda Jackson), who never lets either Pip nor her cuckolded husband, blacksmith Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles) forget the sacrifices she has made on both their behalves to sustain the household. The boy has character, however, first expressed after Pip makes his way across the marshes to a nearby church courtyard dotted with lazy tombstones where his late mother and father now rest, tenderly placing a selection of hand-picked flowers at the base of their marker. The wind plays tricks on Pip’s mind. Perhaps not as readily startled, Pip is nonetheless shriveled with fear after his encounter with escaped prisoner, Magwitch (Findlay Currie). At first, the brutish oaf threatens the boy with bodily harm. But then Magwitch sets Pip free after Pip promises to return the next afternoon with implements from Joe’s workshop, so Magwitch can break free of his iron shackles.
Herein, we tip our hats to both Anthony Wagner and Findlay Currie; also to the directorial prowess of David Lean. In less than ten minutes, Lean has skillfully managed to convey the trajectory of the entire plot – something it took Dickens almost forty pages to effectively accomplish. And Wagner’s clear-eyed unpretentiousness remains the ideal complement to Currie’s deftly focused foreboding. Four years later Currie would dazzle as the devout Peter in MGM’s lavishly appointed, Quo Vadis (1950). Yet, in Great Expectations he is perhaps furthest from this canonization for sainthood; a lumbering, squinty-eyed beast, not above terrorizing this child into doing his biding; yet ever so grateful when his threats manage to scar a deeper wound into the young Pip’s emotional psyche. These two – the innocent and the thoroughly corrupted – shall meet again, many years removed from this auspicious moment on the marshes. After all, it remains Pip’s destiny that he not succeed in life…or, perhaps, does - at least for a time - if superficially at first, though more meaningfully by the end.
However, before any of this can occur, we follow the perspicacious child through a series of perils along this road to maturity. First, is Pip’s relief following the death of his sister; the infinitely more humane Joe choosing more wisely in a second wife, Biddy (Eileen Erskine), who is exceedingly thoughtful. Fate, of course, intercedes when Pip is summoned to the putrefied estate of eccentric recluse, Miss Havisham (the affectingly tragic, Martita Hunt). Greeted at the barred iron gates by the flippantly arrogant Estella (herein misappropriated as a sort of insipid brat by a very young Jean Simmons), who chronically berates and belittles Pip – even slapping his face for no apparent good reason – Pip is led into the inner sanctum; a moldering, cobweb-coated dining hall.
Havisham, aged, gaunt and ghost-like, is still wearing her wedding gown; dead memories cluttering her already scattered mind. She encourages Pip to play in her presence and makes inquiries into the boy’s first impressions of Estella. Pip, in turn, reveals to Havisham that he has become instantly smitten by Estella’s obvious youth and beauty. Although Pip finds Estella rather snobbish he cannot deny this attraction; growing more robust each time he visits the estate. On one such visit, Pip meets another boy, Herbert Pocket (John Forrest) who wastes no time provoking a pugilistic confrontation. But this ends badly for Herbert when Pip manages to knock the enthusiastic prig senseless without much effort.
Sometime later, Pip (now played by John Mills) is summoned to London by attorney at law, Mr. Jaggers and told of a rich benefactor who has requested to remain anonymous but has also bequeathed a considerable sum of money to ensure Pip’s education as a gentleman. Naturally assuming Miss Havisham is behind this bequest Pip endeavors to make the most of his good fortune. He is set up by Jagger in a shared apartment with none other than Herbert Pocket (now played by Alec Guinness); the two good-natured chaps instantly rekindling their boyhood friendship. From Herbert, Pip discovers Miss Havisham was abandoned at the altar many years before and has since cruelly determined to exact her revenge on all men by exploiting Estella’s beauty to break their hearts.
In London, Pip tirelessly works to improve himself, carefully managing his stipend with sincere devotion to never betray what he has misperceived as Havisham’s faith in his character. Pip is also introduced to the rather pompous, Bentley Drummle (Torin Thatcher) who vies for Estella’s (now played by Valerie Hobson) affections. The girl has merit. But she has grown up with a rather callous lack of emotion towards anyone, much less herself. On the occasion of his twenty-first birthday, Pip is visited by Joe, as charitable as ever, but recognizing Pip as a gentleman unlike himself. Joe brings an invitation from Miss Havisham to attend her at the mansion. Making his journey into the past, Pip greets the aged dowager with renewed admiration, startled to discover Estella, all grown up and waiting inside. What was once a handsome girl has now morphed into a vision of loveliness, though still very much aloof and cold-hearted as before.
Over the course of the next few hours Pip attempts in vain to renew his affections. But Estella rather maliciously replies, “I have no heart” then tells Pip of an arrangement with Bentley Drummle, although here too, she confesses to having absolutely no feelings whatsoever for the man. Dismayed by his reception, Pip departs for London; haunted by the memory of this regal creature who he continues to adore in spite of himself. Fate has left one more pitiless hand undealt. On a rainy night, Magwitch reappears in Pip’s doorway, patch-eyed and looming like a great specter from his past. Pip nervously shows the ex-convict into his apartment, pouring him a brandy as they begin to discuss what has transpired in the years since their first chance meeting.
Magwitch explains that after being apprehended by the law he managed another escape, sailing far away to Australia where he became a successful sheep farmer. In fact, the profits derived from his hard labor have made him a prominent figure and, even more startling, the wealthy patron to who Pip owes his present circumstances as a gentleman. The news is, at first, bewildering. Even more shocking is Magwitch’s revelation that he adopted Pip as something of a son after losing his only child – a daughter born to a wealthy woman out of wedlock who he has never seen and now considers likely dead. The pair are momentarily startled by Herbert, who has returned home and, at first, cannot comprehend the presence of this hulking creature, knife drawn, dominating their living room. By and by, Pip explains everything to Herbert; all three agreeing to keep Magwitch’s return to London a secret. For the other convict (George Hayes) who did not escape incarceration, but struck a deal to remain out of prison, is intent on discovering his whereabouts and making them known to the police.
Pip visits Miss Havisham once again, attempting to convince Estella to abandon her engagement to Drummle. She uncaringly dismisses him outright before leaving the room and Miss Havisham, at last realizing how destructive her influences have been on both Pip and Estella’s lives, begs his forgiveness. Unable to grant it, Pip storms from the dining hall, a loose log from the fireplace suddenly becoming dislodged and rolling up against Miss Havisham’s dress. The brittle fabric ignites and Miss Havisham burns to death; Pip reentering the room too late to save her, despite his most valiant efforts. His hands badly burned, Pip hurries back to London.
For several days, Pip and Herbert make themselves fixtures on the docks, rowing back and forth in a skiff, presumably for exercise. The plan is to take Magwitch out to a packet boat that comes to port every Thursday, thereby providing him with a narrow escape from the authorities. Tragically, this plan is interrupted by the other convict, who has already alerted the police. In their attempt to intercede, both skiffs - one with Herbert, Pip and Magwitch, the other carrying the convict and his police escort - are capsized by the packet boat; its paddlewheel killing the convict and narrowly missing Magwitch, thanks to a last minute intervention by Pip.
At trial Magwitch, along with a host of other criminals is convicted and sentenced to hang in the public square. But while awaiting his stay of execution, Magwitch falls ill and is taken to the infirmary. Pip now confronts Mr. Jaggers with his suspicions; that Estella is Magwitch’s long lost daughter. Slyly, without incriminating himself, Jaggers confirms Pip’s theory and Pip rushes to the infirmary to tell Magwitch - not only has he found his long lost child but that he - Pip – remains desperately in love with her. Pip’s genuinely tender revelation gladdens Magwitch’s heart and he dies moments later with a smile on his face.
Stricken by illness, Pip falls unconscious in a London street, awakening sometime later in Joe’s modest home; the place of Pip’s youth. Nursed back to health by Joe and Biddy, Pip elects to make one last visit to the old Havisham estate; presuming to find nothing more than memories awaiting him. Instead, he quietly discovers Estella, spurned by Bentley after discovering her spurious parentage. But the girl has already begun her slow decline, assuming the mantle of the decidedly mad woman who once lived there. Pip watches in horror as Estella walks about the dining hall, taking her place in front of the fire as Miss Havisham once did; even appearing to speak in her tone. But Pip will not allow Estella to become another Havisham.
Instead, he rushes to the barred and heavily curtained windows, tearing down their dusty drapes and throwing open the shutters to reveal the room for what it is: a dead dream no longer even worth remembering, with no ties that, for so long, have plagued both their lives. The sunlight already begun to stream in, Estella confides to Pip that the future frightens her. He makes a promise almost immediate, to clear the cobwebs of doubt and regrets from her mind; the pair departing hand in glove beyond the gated courtyard, presumably meant for another world entirely, this one predicated on their own happiness together.
These final moments of Great Expectations are a lush and evocative romantic fantasy; one that thoroughly satisfies – if not the intentions of Dickens’ brooding novel – then most decidedly the movie-going public’s insatiable desire for the proverbial happy ending. No doubt David Lean understood this ‘need’ better than most, and nourishes it with a competency for underplaying this moment of liberation from the past. We feel for Pip and Estella and pray that theirs will be a happy union unfettered by all the misfortune gone before it. If not pleasing the literary purist, then at least Lean has secured his ‘great expectations’ for a cinematic masterpiece. Others have tried to recreate this Dickens’ classic on film and/or television; but what each subsequent adaptation ends up referencing is David Lean’s movie – either by betraying this moment with a more dower finale or falling into a cheaply flattering imitation of it.
The movie ultimately hinges on two very unique and exhilarating performances: John Mills as the delicate, though hardly fragile, Pip (utterly blameless and remaining pure of heart despite the many corruptible influences threatening to bring him down) and Findlay Currie’s superbly heartrending, Magwitch (already past the point of no return in mistakes made within his own time, and thus, quite unable to steer the future without appallingly coming face to face with his own spurious past. In these two magnetic actors the success of Lean’s tremendous adaptation endures; neither Mills nor Currie overplaying their part, each representing an intangibly masculine quality. Martita Hunt’s destructive dowager also deserves a nod herein; an aged gargoyle stirred from her own wreck and ruin by the inner crumbling of her heart and the boy who manages to awaken a grander tragedy within her; that the poison of her own bitter fruit may have permanently contaminated the impressionable mind of her ward, Estella, for all time.
Neither Jean Simmons simpering child, nor Valerie Hobson’s desolate adult incarnation of Estella ever attains anything beyond the most rickety of cardboard cutouts. But it really doesn’t impact the story – much - even if we remain at a total loss to conceive why someone as emotionally chaste as Pip would choose such an awful and unrepentant prig as his soul mate. Finally, we tip our hats to Francis L. Sullivan’s Mr. Jaggers and, to a lesser extent, Alec Guinness’ Herbert Pocket. Sullivan’s wily barrister is a devoutly English concoction, teeming in wordy vim and vigor, capable of expounding the precepts of the law, while infusing even its most technical jargon with double entendre that humanizes both it and his character simultaneously. Guinness’s Pocket is the movie’s enjoyable fop, though perhaps offering little to no foreshadowing of his towering achievements in the British and later American cinema, soon to follow. In the final analysis, Great Expectations lives up to its namesake; an unbeatable night out at the cinema. A little gem, indeed!
Almost two decades ago MGM Home Video promised us a DVD box set of David Lean’s ‘little gems’ that was to have included Great Expectations, This Happy Breed, Madeleine and Blithe Spirit. For one reason or another, the set never materialized. The release was first delayed; then canceled outright. In the interim, Criterion has released This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit to Blu-ray in gorgeous-looking 1080p transfers. Now, ITV Studios offers us Great Expectations, leaving Madeleine the only hold out on home video. But the results herein are a mixed blessing. Although the first half of this hi-def transfer appear to have been derived from surviving elements given a thorough digital cleanup, the latter half of this presentation suddenly succumbs to a barrage of scratches, chips and other age-related damage that, if at least tempered, has not received the badly needed full-blown restoration it deserves. It’s rather odd; as though only the first half of Great Expectations was restored.
The pluses: first off, this disc, while only available in the U.K., is nevertheless region free, so importing it from Amazon.com means anyone can play it virtually anywhere. How I sincerely wish studios would do this with every title they put out. But I digress. Image quality throughout exhibits a subtly nuanced gray scale, perfectly realizing Guy Green’s sumptuously lit cinematography. Tonality is exceptional. We get rich deep blacks and very pristine white. Fine detail pops. We can see specks of dirt, minute details in hair and makeup, and, razor sharpness (though not impugned by the application of DNR or artificial sharpening) extracting all of the intricacies in John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton’s set design. Just wonderful!
Less wonderful is the age-related damage that continues to plague the latter half of his presentation. We also get some nominal breathing around the edges of the frame and a very brief, though sloppy mastering misfire that digitizes the image for a split second during the opening sequence in the cemetery after Magwitch grabs the young Pip by his lapels. It’s a blip. Blink and you’ll miss it. But it’s there just the same and ought to have been corrected. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is adequate but not all that it might have been. This should have received a lossless DTS track.
Finally, ITV – who didn’t even have the inkling to change their own logo that appears before the film (it reads ITV DVD!!!) hasn’t given us anything by way of extra features. No documentary. No audio commentary. Nothing! What a shame! As it seems unlikely we’ll see Great Expectations reincarnated on this side of the Atlantic any time soon, ITV’s release is perhaps the best one can hope for. It isn’t perfect. But it is competent for the most part and for now, we’ll settle for as much. Better news on the horizon – hopefully. At least, that’s my great expectation!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)