Even as I write this I can recall the opening scene, which when I first saw it had my heart skip a beat. The deserted graveyard by the bleak marshland was atmospheric, fitting well with the menace of the escaped convict chillingly exuded by Finlay Currie. Never had the cinematic potential of Charles Dickens’ classic 1861 novel, so justly adapted for film as this one. There is a 1917 silent version and a host of others, which if now seen at all owe to the name of Charles Dickens than on their own merits.
The 1946 version directed by David Lean, in 1999, came fifth in a BFI poll of the top 100 British films. The film stars John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Finlay Currie, Martita Hunt, and Alec Guinness. It was the first of two films Lean directed based on Dickens’ novels, the other being his 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist.
The script was written by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh, and the film was produced by Ronald Neame and photographed by Guy Green.
An orphan, Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager), lives with his harried older sister (Freda Jackson) and her kindhearted blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). One day, Pip runs into an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie) who by his sheer size and menacing aspects make the boy fetch him some food and a file for his chains. However, the man is soon caught and forgotten.
Later, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a rich, very odd spinster, arranges to have the boy come to her mansion regularly. She is in her wedding dress surrounded by dust, cobwebs in a house going to ruin. The lad is to provide her company and to play with a cruel but beautiful teenage girl, Estella (Jean Simmons), who mocks his coarse manners at every opportunity. Pip quickly falls in love with her. There he also meets one of Miss Havisham’s relations, Herbert Pocket (John Forrest), a boy about his age. Another person whom he encounters there is Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), Miss Havisham’s lawyer. The visits come to an end when Pip turns 14 and begins his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. Estella is leaving also, to learn to become a lady.
Six years later, Mr. Jaggers shows up and tells him that a mysterious benefactor has offered to turn Pip (played as an adult by John Mills) into a gentleman, one with “great expectations”. Pip naturally assumes that it is Miss Havisham. He is taken to London where Mr. Jaggers arranges for Pip to stay with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), now grown up and he will teach him how to behave like a gentleman. From Herbert, Pip learns the sad story of the queer spinster: Miss Havisham has been ditched at the altar. Her embittered mind since then has chosen Estella as her instrument of vengeance, a heartless creation to break men’s hearts. Pip refuses to believe it.
After Pip turns 21, a visit from Joe Gargery proves the man with great expectation is nothing more than a snob. Joe brings a request from Miss Havisham to see her. There he is delighted to be reunited with Estella (played now by Valerie Hobson), though she warns him point-blank, “You must know, Pip, I have no heart”. She is about to enter London society. Estella flirts with many men, especially the wealthy and well-born Bentley Drummle (Torin Thatcher), much to Pip’s disgust.
Pip receives another visitor from the past. Magwich the escaped convict. Pip now understands Magwitch is his patron, not Miss Havisham. Mr. Jaggers confirms the news, if indirectly, inasmuch as Magwitch has apparently been transported to Australia (where he made the fortune that has paid for Pip’s refinement) and will be hanged if found in England. From Jagger’s assistant, Mr. Wemmick (Ivor Barnard), Pip hears that there was another (who had escaped along with Magwich shown at the beginning of the film) who has come to know that Magwitch is in London. Pip makes preparations to smuggle the old man onto a packet boat and accompany him to the Continent.
He goes to bid farewell to Estella and finds her with Miss Havisham. When pressed, she tells Pip that she is going to marry Drummle. Pip affirms to Miss Havisham that she has gotten her revenge, at least on him; he loves Estella without hope. For the first time, Miss Havisham regrets her actions. After he leaves, accidentally her wedding dress catches fire and when Pip hastens to her side it is too late.
Pip, Herbert and Magwitch row out to the packet boat and they are intercepted by the waiting police, tipped off by Magwitch’s great enemy. Magwitch grapples with his nemesis, who is killed when he is struck by the vessel. Magwitch is seriously injured. The old man had previously spoken to Pip of his lost daughter. Pip’s suspicions are aroused and then confirmed by Mr. Jaggers: she is Estella. Pip visits the dying Magwitch and tells him of her fate, and that he, Pip, is in love with her. Magwitch passes away, a contented man.
Stricken by illness and with his expectations gone, Pip is taken home and nursed back to health by Joe Gargery. When he recovers, he revisits Miss Havisham’s deserted house. There he finds Estella. (When Mr. Jaggers told Drummle of her true parentage, he breaks off the engagement and she returns to the house she had inherited from Miss Havisham.) Learning that Estella plans to live in seclusion just like her mentor, the alarmed Pip tears down the curtains and forces open the boarded-up windows; for the first time in years, sunlight blazes into the room, revealing the crumbling wedding cake surrounded by cobwebs and dust. Pip forces Estella to look, and tells her that he has never stopped loving her. After hesitating, she embraces him and they leave the house, taking one last look back when they reach the gate.
The happy ending differs greatly from both the published and unpublished conclusions to Dickens’ novel.
Great Expectations won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay.
* John Mills as Pip as a man
* Jean Simmons as Estella as a girl
* Valerie Hobson as Estella as a woman
* Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham
* Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch
* Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers
* Bernard Miles as Joe Gargery
* Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket as a man
* Anthony Wager as Pip as a boy
* John Forrest as Herbert Pocket as a boy
* Freda Jackson as Mrs. Joe Gargery
* Ivor Bernard as Mr. Wemmick
* Torin Thatcher as Bentley Drummle
Directed by David Lean
Cinematography Guy Green
Running time 118 min.
Technical aspects: Camera work and settings
The film was shot in six weeks in Rochester, a town and a region with historic links to Dickens. Lean’s interpretation demanded a particular kind of camera work, visual composition and set design. The director was inspired by the well lit close ups and well focused lenses of 1940s (11) American cinema, and in particular by the work of cinematographer Arthur Edeson, the director-of-photography on Casablanca. Edeson used long focuses, creating an emphatic sense of intimacy and keeping the faces sharp while softening the setting around them (12). Insisting on a corresponding visual style, Lean was forced to make changes in the crew. He replaced the camera operator Robert Krasker, who filmed Brief Encounter and later worked with Orson Welles on The Third Man, with his old collaborator, Guy Green. He wanted to substitute the ‘polite’ (13) look of his previous films with a more dynamic photography, long black shadows and great highlights, more appropriate for the Victorian era. He also advised Green to shoot the children using 24mm and 35mm lenses, the widest in those days, so the set would look big, and to use longer, 50mm and 75mm lenses, shooting the adults (14). The specific demands on camera work provided a difficult task for production designer, John Bryan. Bryan decided to bring the ceilings down and save the settings from disappearing in the soft focus. The forced perspective (characteristic of German silent cinema) created a sense of stylisation, contrasting the stark reality of Dickens’s novel with the ominous exteriors and gothic interiors in which his characters are situated. As Lean later pointed out, Bryan “was not afraid to exaggerate, to depart from reality.”( quoted from an essay of Boris Trbic http://www.sensesofcinema)
David Copperfield (1935, George Cukor)
The Charles Dickens Collection: Great Expectations (1978)
Nicholas Nickleby (1946, Alberto Cavalcanti)
A Tale of Two Cities (1935, Jack Conway)
Oliver Twist (1948, David Lean)
Little Dorrit (1988)
Character (1997, Mike van Diem)
Little Dorritt: Dorritt’s Story (1988)
Oliver Twist (1982, Clive Donner)
Jane Eyre (1983, Julian Amyes)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)
In Which We Serve (1942, Noël Coward, David Lean)
The Promoter (1952, Ronald Neame)
Oliver Twist (1948, David Lean)
A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
Scrooge (1970, Ronald Neame)
Tunes of Glory (1960, Ronald Neame)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
Other Related Movies
The Pickwick Papers (1952, Noel Langley)
David Copperfield (1999, Simon Curtis)
[welcoming Pip to her decaying mansion]
Miss Havisham: Come nearer. Let me look at you. Come close. Look at me. You aren’t afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since before you were born?
Pip: [narrating] I realized that in becoming a gentleman, I had only succeeded in becoming a snob.
Magwitch: Keep still, you young devil, or I’ll slit your throat!
Joe Gargery: Pip! A young man of great expectations.
* Guy Green replaced Robert Krasker as cinematographer on this film. David Lean and Ronald Neame were not satisfied with Krasker’s studio recreation of the marshes in the opening scenes.
* Alec Guinness was very nervous and self-conscious when he started filming, as he found his wig to be particularly uncomfortable.
* David Lean was not a particularly well-read man, and only became aware of the power of Charles Dickens’ story when his wife Kay Walsh dragged him along to a theatrical production of “Great Expectations” in 1939. Incidentally, playing Herbert Pocket in this production, was a young Alec Guinness, whom Lean subsequently cast in the same role in the film version. Aside from bit parts, it was Guinness’ first major screen role and was also the first of six films he made with Lean. Martita Hunt was also in the stage production, playing Miss Havisham, a role she reprised in the film.
* First movie speaking role for ‘Alec Guiness’ .
* David Lean wanted his film to have a feeling of heightened realism. Working closely in conjunction with art director John Bryan and cinematographer Guy Green, he employed several tricks, such as forced perspective, to achieve this effect. The famous opening shot in the graveyard, for instance, features a brooding church in the background which in reality was only 3 meters high.
• During one scene where she had to carry a candle while walking up the stairs, Jean Simmons’ apron caught fire.
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