When I wrote about Doctor Zhivago, I said, “David Lean is a name I should probably be a lot more aware of than I am.” Well, I guess I was all talk back then and didn’t learn my lesson. Because since then, I still haven’t actively sought out any of his work, and I haven’t even really read up on his IMDB resume. But it turns out, he’s one of those directors who’s movies you’re gonna see, and you’re gonna be blown away way by, whether you consciously seek them out or not. Because without knowing who made it, I got another David Lean boot in the ass by randomly deciding to watch the 1946 version of Great Expectations.
It’s the early 19th century, and young boy, Pip (Tony Wager) is living with his mean sister and her loving, humble blacksmith husband, Joe (Bernard Miles) after the death of his parents. While visiting their grave one night, he’s accosted by a convict, Magwitch (Finlay Currie) who has just escaped from a nearby prison ship. Under threat of murder in the night, Pip later steals food and brandy from his sister’s pantry and deliver’s them to the convict. But it’s not long before Magwitch is recaptured by the authorities and sent back to prison.
A few months later, Pip is summoned to the home of local rich, crazy bitch, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). Broken hearted after being left at the alter decades earlier, Miss Havisham has lost her shit and adopted a young girl, Estella (Jean Simmons) with the sole purpose of bringing her up to break men’s hearts. The plan shows early signs of success when the young Pip develops an everlasting crush, right before Estella is sent away to finishing school in Paris.
Years later, with Pip now a young man played by John Mills, and apprenticing as a blacksmith to Joe, a London lawyer named Jaggers (Fancis L Sulliven) informs Pip that he’s been chosen by an unknown party to receive a significant allowance and move to London where he will become a gentleman. Once in London, Pip becomes fast friends with dandy fop Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), and meets the now adult Estella (Valarie Hobson). He has money, friends and is in pursuit of his dream girl, but it can’t stay rosy forever.
Great Expectations is one of those stories that you probably know without ever reading the original book or even seeing one of the seemingly dozens of movie adaptations. I know I’ve never read the Charles Dickens book, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any screen version, apart from bits and pieces of Alfonso Cuaron’s modern day version from the late 90s. Yet, I knew the story beat by beat. And even then, none of that stopped me from loving every second of Lean’s Great Expectations, even being surprised throughout. It doesn’t matter how old or familiar a story is, it’s how that story is told that makes it entertaining.
It’s a similar realisation about Lean that made me appreciate this movie even more as well. His version of this story is close to 70 years old. The technology used to make this moves is more than half a century obsolete. The acting approaches of every performance are an old fashioned style that hasn’t been relevant in decades. And anything innovative then has been imitated, replaced and run into the ground dozens of times over in the years since. But none of that matters. Somehow, every choice Lean makes still feels fresh, ground breaking and game changing.
The lighting especially in Great Expectations is a real stand out. The way this movie uses light (or lack of), shadows and silhouettes adds so much to every single scene. It somehow stood out to me often, but never distracted me from the story. Only ever adding to the mood.
Acting wise, this is a crazy young Alec Guinness who maybe hadn’t figured it out yet, but his haminess came off as kind of endearing. And Bernard Miles was either the greatest actor in the world, or the absolute worst. But his stilted, awkward, deer in head lights work as Pip’s adoptive father is the kind of thing a woman would describe as adorable. But because I’m a red blooded bloke, I have no idea what word to use.
The only criticism I have of Great Expectations is that it’s a little too short. It’s rare for me to think that of a movie that comes in just shy of two hours, but this is a story I could have had plenty more of. At its rushed pace, the relationships suffer a little. None of the loves or betrayals feel quite as earned as they should. An extra 20 or 30 minutes overall would have given each relationship just that little bit more gravitas.
I’ve said it before, but this time I really mean it, I really need to dig deeper into the filmography of David Lean. When I decided to watch Great Expectations, I assumed it was going to feel like home work. Watching a classic, just so I could tick it off a list of classics, never to be thought of again. But every single minute of it was just so great that as happy as I was to be watching it, I was also angry at myself for not seeing it before now. And for not tracking down every David Lean movie.