Movie Review – Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)
Written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh
Directed by David Lean

The success of Brief Encounter rocketed David Lean into a level of acclaim that would only grow for the remainder of his career. His next projects would be adaptations of two classic Charles Dickens novels, starting with Great Expectations. The idea to adapt the story to the screen came after Lean saw a stage production that abbreviated the text and turned it into a digestible narrative while cutting away subplots. It took a couple of years of drafts, explaining the writing credits until Lean was satisfied with the final product. On Boxing Day (December 26) 1946, Great Expectations premiered in the U.K.

Pip is a young boy living in the English countryside. One day, while visiting his deceased parents’ graves, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict. The criminal threatens Pip to bring food and a metal file from his blacksmith brother in law’s home by the next morning. The boy complies, but later, the convict is captured when he fights with one of his comrades. A little while later, Pip is asked to become a regular guest at the decrepit manor of Miss Havisham, an old maid stuck in her anger over a groom who left her at the altar. Havisham has adopted Estella, a girl she is shaping into a cruel person intended to break the hearts of the men she will encounter as an adult. Of course, Pip falls for Estella.

Years later, adult Pip is called to London by a mysterious benefactor paying for his entry into high society as a gentleman. He’s reunited with an old acquaintance, Herbert Pocket, and they begin learning how to be proper through fencing, attending parties, learning to dance, and more. All the while, Pip is left wondering who would want to give him all of this. One stormy night the identity is revealed, and it changes everything, sending Pip in a direction he never expected, engaged in a vast conspiracy while still pining for Estella, who seems to waver on whether she returns those affections.

With Great Expectations, Lean solidifies himself as a visually powerful director. All of the lighting and framing of Brief Encounter is ratcheted up a notch with a larger budget leading to some gorgeous iconic images. This is also a continuation of how Lean incorporates elements of psychological horror and the gothic into his work. The church graveyard & Mrs. Havisham’s mansion are both beautiful examples of Gothic production design. Lean lights Havisham by candlelight accentuating her ghostliness and the vast black void of the rooms she haunts. You can see Lean having an influence on similar characters in cinema, like Norma Desmond’s decaying labyrinth of wealth in Sunset Boulevard. I would argue that Lean’s London is disappointingly flat and looks like an obvious stage. There’s not the bustling of life we’ll see later with the filmed on location Oliver Twist two years later.

Lean does an excellent job of bringing some of Dickens’sDickens’s most iconic characters to the screen. I wouldn’t say the acting is fantastic from everyone, and even actress Valerie Hobson, who played the adult Estella said Lean was a terrible director and have her nothing to work with. I can’t argue too much about what is on screen because, while the imagery is gorgeous, the performances fall pretty flat. The greatest mistake made was the casting of John Mills as the adult Pip. The minute he comes on screen, obviously at least a decade older than the character he plays, the performance hits with a thud. He’s uncharismatic and doesn’t make any exciting choices as Pip. 

The childhood portion of the picture is the best part; it holds all the mystery and wonders you want from this story. We don’t fully understand everything we see because it is through the eyes of the young Pip. The complicated relationship between Pip and Estella is more interesting here than when they are adults, and Havisham is a character you don’t to lose from the narrative once she shows up. David Lean put his stamp on Dickens with this picture, establishing a look and tone that the best adaptations adhere to. The side characters feel like real people who have lives beyond their small appearances. It’s a shame the lead performances in the second part of the film don’t keep the incredible momentum of the first going.

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