REVIEW: ‘Great Expectations’

Great Expectations opens with a glorious shot of a sunrise. A boy grows from a small dot to a full-size human. The shot is rather impressive; the timing of the Sun moving through the clouds is perfect. Claude Chabrol once said of director David Lean that he (Chabrol) and Lean are the only two directors who will wait forever to capture the perfect sunset (or sunrise). The only difference is that his idea of an eternity is three weeks and Lean’s is two years. This is one such shot.

Lean’s Great Expectations is perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of Dickens to date. It captures tone of the original story (and much of its dialogue) while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by being presented on film. It adequately preserves the complete story while trimming to the point required by a reasonable runntime. My one complaint in regards to the film in terms of adapting is that the pacing occasionally feels deliberate (even rushed). I like what is in the film, but it has one constant pace that is unadjusted for effect. This is specifically odd for a David Lean film. His newer films in particular are known for long, drawn-out shots (and long runntimes). But here, the film exists for the story it is telling and the beauty captured in reflecting both the piece of literature and the time and place it occupies.

The story is classically Populist as it tells the story of a poor blacksmith getting the opportunity to rise in social status and become a gentleman by the grace of an unnamed benefactor. As a child he entertains an old rich woman, Mrs. Havisham, so Pip makes the assumption that she is the benefactor. Things complicate when the woman he loves (Estella, who also is a friend of Mrs. Havisham) becomes the key to access the fortune that provided him the opportunity. That’s actually the majority of the story and even if you haven’t read the book it seems somewhat predictable despite its originality. But this does not at all hinder the beauty of the story, the film, or the performances.

It is a beautiful story that opts with the more optimistic of the two endings offered up by Dickens and benefits greatly from excellent performances from two of Lean’s frequent collaborators: Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, and Finlay Currie as Magwitch. The sets are beautiful, classical, and believable but also fairy-tale-esque, particularly the graveyard at the beginning and Mrs. Havisham’s dark mansion (that is potentially the insipiration for Desma Normand in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., it’s referenced at least). For much of the film’s runntime, the camera is not stagnant, an impressive feat for a film that takes place largely indoors and could easily focus purely on being a “period piece.” The film is beautiful and emotionally effective from first frame to last. Although it ocasionally feels rushed in getting to the finish line and is pushed along by some overly expository narration.

The heavy-set tones of optimistic anti-classicism do create a Great Depression/Capra-esque tone for the overall morals of the film (it is Dickens after all), but this particular Dickens novel incorporates various elements of Gothic literature (and extreme melodrama, in the cinematic version). The Gothic elements manifest themselves visually with the afforementioned Havisham mansion and graveyard sequence. This also influences the tone creating a generally morose mood in the beginning and preventing the film from ever reaching unreasonable highs.

The last scene is the exception to this rule. To say that it hits the moral over the head would be a grand understatement. Blatant visual symbolism accompanied by an explicit narration (that isn’t even a voiceover) unfolds the optimistic, even Hollywood-esque finale that Dickens wrote as an alternative to one that more accurately reflected his own life. The film adaptation, being an optimistic interpretation is structured to this ending, even tailored to it. Whereas the alternative conclusion feels more natural in the literary text. It is as if he interpreted that his original would not sell successfully. Like the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons, happiness prevails for the purpose of populist success (ironic given the story’s natural moral inclination).

Fortunately, in this instance Dickens preserved and published both endings and Lean nurtured the story appropriately to the ending he opted with. Great Expectations was his first film to completely break free of the Noel Coward success. With Brief Encounter, Lean took Coward’s work and made it his own. With Great Expectations he broke free from Coward and made a film he was truly passionate about. The film takes place over the course of more than twenty years. One might even say it is David Lean’s first epic…

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  • I haven’t seen this version. Very interesting and insightful review. I may have to check it out, thanks for sharing!

  • Andrew R.

    This is one of the most overrated films ever. I was dying of boredom throughout the film, and I love Lean.

    Its “classic” status is undeserved.

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