Great Expectations is the story of a young boy who has good luck and great expectations, but then loses both. Yet he still learns how to find happiness and comes to understand the meaning of friendship and love. His journey is the lure of the story, as viewers follow his progress and learn as he learns. Charles Dickens introduces dramatic psychological changes within the main characters, which gives the story depth and humanity. The film is full of many adventures, twists of fate, and dark secrets throughout the story. It is a journey worth taking for both educational and entertainment purposes.
This was the first of David Lean's two adaptations of Dickens classics (Oliver Twist followed in 1948). Lean realised the cinematic potential of the novel more skilfully than his predecessors and most of those that followed him. The result is one of the finest British literary adaptations, and one of the most acclaimed of all British films.
John Mills, at 38 surprisingly old for the role, is excellent as Pip, although Martita Hunt steals the early scenes, playing Miss Havisham as an imposing if shabby figure, bedecked in crumbling lace and linen. Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers gives a similarly powerful performance: his voice rolls and booms, and physically he towers over his servile assistant Wemmick (Ivor Barnard).
But the film is as much about atmosphere as it is about people. Classic scenes include the opening shots of the marshes and the graveyard, which sets the tone for the rest of the picture, and the inside of Miss Havershamís decrepit old house. Who can forget that dark, antique dinning room with its long table and wedding cake, all covered in dust and cobwebs? Leanís use of light and shade has been imitated a hundred times from these two scenes alone. Then there are Leanís recreations of early eighteenth-century London, from its stately buildings and grand facades to its narrow, eerily lit passageways. They build in the mind images not soon forgotten.
The keys to producing any good film rendition of a novel are compressing the story enough to fit it into a two-hour time frame, while at the same time maintaining the storyís integrity--its character, ideas, and feeling. Lean successfully distils a long and complex novel, written in the first person, into a compelling visual narrative covering no more than two hours. In this film, perhaps more than in any other, he makes us care about the characters, and casts the kind of cinematic spell very few directors are capable of, bringing into play a powerful visual narrative that hints at big themes and elemental forces. Great Expectations offers a near perfect balance of human sentiment and visual grandeur.
David Lean's crisp rendering of Dicken's classic is one of the great translations of literature to film. Guy Green's award-winning, film noir cinematography offsets the rich, exuberant tale of Pip, played by John Mills. True to the vibrant spirit of Dickens, "Great Expectations" is the rare film that does justice to its source.