Great Expectations

by Charlie Largent Nov 26, 2022

Great Expectations
1946 / 1.33: 1 / 118 Min.
Starring John Mills, Anthony Wager, Jean Simmons
Written by David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan
Directed by David Lean

David Lean and Noël Coward made four films together in the space of just three years—it was one of the most consequential collaborations in British cinema with Lean, a former editor, finding his footing as director alongside the accomplished Coward, one of England’s preeminent “show-biz hyphenates.” By 1946 Lean was ready to part ways and meet success on his own terms—thanks to his wife Kay Walsh, he already had a project in mind.

In 1939 Walsh shared a studio dressing room with Martita Hunt who was part of a fledging theater group called the Actor’s Company. Hunt convinced Walsh to bring her husband to the opening night of the troupe’s first production, an adaptation of Great Expectations at the Rudolf Steiner House, a tiny 220-seat theater near Regent’s Park in London. Alec Guinness adapted Charles Dickens’s novel, narrated, and assumed the role of Herbert Pocket. Hunt—Guinness’s acting teacher and just 39 at the time—played Miss Havisham, the Machiavellian crone at the heart of the story. Lean would credit that stage version for his decision to make the film—”It exerted a tremendous influence.”

Seven years later Lean set out to tame Dickens’s teeming storyline with co-writers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan (Lean confessed to re-writing the book in “headline form” and removing the “dull” parts.) John Byran did the production design and Sophie Harris created the costumes, including Miss Havisham’s tattered bridal shroud. Cinematographer Guy Green lit Bryan’s sets in a velvety Chiaroscuro, giving the novel’s more famous passages the look of a gothic fairy tale; the fossilized wedding feast covered in cobwebs, and the graveyard adventure of the book’s protagonist, Pip.

The orphaned Pip lives with his older sister, a cold-blooded scold known as “Mrs. Joe.” Her husband is Joe Gargery, a bighearted blacksmith and Pip’s sole protector. Pip himself narrates the tale and he understands the importance of atmosphere; his story begins on a foggy winter’s night in December—it’s Christmas Eve but the mood is purely Halloween.

The boy has momentarily escaped his sister in order to bring holly to the gravesites of his parents, a regular pilgrimage for the lonely child. Seven years old and already steeled to life’s unhappy surprises, Pip is nevertheless wholly unprepared for the hulking monster who’s waiting behind the tombstones. The man, his face rearranged by a lifetime of bar fights, is an escaped criminal named Abel Magwitch—he is cold and hungry, and demands that Pip bring him food, and a file for his chains, “…or I’ll have your heart and liver out.”

Though he’s more frightened of Mrs. Joe than this shivering fugitive, Pip finds the courage to ransack his sister’s cupboard—Magwitch shall be fed and freed. The boy’s trial by fire is futile; despite Pip’s heroics the convict is captured and led to a waiting prison ship—but not before he returns Pip’s favor: he takes the blame for stealing the food. To find kindness in such a scoundrel is an epiphany for the child and a moving illustration of the film’s theme; “Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence.” Pip will need to hold tight to that knowledge in the months ahead.

It’s not easy for the diminutive heroes of a Dickens story, the novelist insisted on tasking his young champions with one freakish encounter after another, like Zeus running Hercules through a gauntlet of mythical hobgoblins. But even Zeus would have second thoughts about setting his titan against a harpy like Miss Havisham.

A pale hag who haunts a dilapidated mansion called Satis House (Dickens described her as “the witch of the place”), Havisham is the  personification of the morbid romanticism found in the poems of Poe and films like James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Whale’s undead bride, though battle-scarred and frail, had the wide-eyed fervor of a love-struck debutante. In contrast the vengeful Havisham—left waiting at the altar years ago—is as brittle as the decades-old wedding cake that memorializes her heartbreak. But like the mad doctor of Whale’s film, Havisham is in the business of creating monsters, in this case a devastating little heartbreaker named Estella, Pip’s new playmate.

This is no ordinary play date—Havisham has arranged for Pip to fall in love with Estella, and has one bit of advice for the boy, “Love her, if she tears your heart to pieces, love her.” Pip obeys and in the coming weeks and years, the two children form a near sadomasochistic bond, a love-hate relationship arbitrated on a playground instead of the dungeon. Estella is both beauty and the beast and her stealth assault on Pip’s dignity is relentless—”I hate you!” Finally Pip is granted a reprieve, he must leave Havisham’s employ to apprentice for Joe. It’s a short-lived arrangement—a lawyer named Jaggers appears with news of an anonymous benefactor; Pip has been awarded a sizable trust fund and given a promise to keep, he will move to London and insinuate himself into high society.

It’s a sea change for Pip, and the film too—until this moment Pip and Estella have been played by Anthony Wager and Jean Simmons, and it’s due to their parody of a courtship—she is so delicately cruel and he is so desperately in love—that the first half of Great Expectations has such a primal appeal. But like most of us, adulthood does no favors for Pip or Estella or the film; going forward they will be played by John Mills and Valerie Hobson. As fine as these actors are, something more than childhood has been lost.

What helps Great Expectations maintain its hold on our emotions is the mystery at the heart of the story; the identity of Pip’s benefactor and the secret that Estella harbors that even she is unaware of. And the drama deepens as Pip faces new challenges: while he woos Estella in the ballrooms, Havisham still lurks in the shadows, spinning her web—but is she the only Tarantula in town or are there other spiders lurking?

Like London, Dickens’ novel is stuffed with characters, the more eccentric the better, and Lean seems to make room for every one of them. Though they may appear for five minutes or five seconds, we remember them as if we’d studied them for years—Bernard Miles as the achingly kind Joe, and Freda Jackson as his demonic wife, a performance so coruscating she convinces us that she dominates not only her husband but the movie itself, and yet she has but a few minutes of screen time. Frances L. Sullivan is the unknowable Mr. Jaggers, at one moment a fearsome figure, at others a savior.

Once again Alec Guinness plays Herbert Pocket, a somewhat thankless part as Pip’s true-blue pal. Martita Hunt reprises her role as Miss Havisham, an indelible performance that put the role under lock and key, and woe betide the actress who tries to usurp it. Finley Currie is Magwitchfrom the chain gang to the manor house, he is the most honorable figure in the story, the architect of Pip’s great expectations; if Pip is finally the hero that Dickens forecast it is a result of the lesson he learned on that Christmas Eve in the graveyard.

David Lean is best remembered for monumental productions like Dr. Zhivago, Passage to India, and his most famous film, Lawrence of Arabia. At first glance such Super Panavision crowd pleasers would seem to overpower the director’s more modestly scaled films—but while Lawrence overwhelms our senses, Great Expectations gets under your skin, it’s an intimate epic.

Great Expectations is still unavailable on Blu ray in the United States but ITV released a version in Britain in 2008 that will do quite nicely till someone (and by “someone” I mean Critertion) gets their hands on it. The ITV picture quality is lovely but Guy Green’s cinematography demands more care, a restoration is called for. And the sheer amount of extras necessary to document the making of the film could fill a book longer than the novel itself. One day those great expectations will be met.

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