Great Expectations

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 11, 2014

As with Dickens’ David Copperfield, only the first part of this story deals specifically with a child’s life and concerns. But the vividness of Pip’s first encounters with the convict Magwitch is such that the entire film is charged with them. Not only is the feeling maintained (this is a fine, full emotional experience) but important ideas that relate to childhood, and the eventual necessity of putting its things away, are also beautifully explored. It has been influentially suggested that in order to qualify, a children’s book must have a child protagonist (cf. Charlotte Huck, 1961). Great Expectations suggests how that received wisdom may only be the beginning of the conversation.

Children—and, occasionally, children’s stories—tend naturally to a kind of self-absorption. Parents know that there can be much sweetness in this, and that it is developmentally appropriate. But kids’ discourse can be guilty of a well-meant and not necessarily very helpful idealization of childhood at the expense of substantial and sensitive maturity. Little princes and polar expresses are all fine, as far as they go, but most of us would agree that it is not only necessary, but also potentially wonderful to grow up. This is one of the things that Dickens’ resonant story addresses, and the film’s co-writer/director, David Lean, successfully takes up the idea.

The young viewer’s early identification with Pip also carries his interest into Pip’s education as a young adult. Not incidentally, this means that the viewer, along with the protagonist, is brought by force to a knowledge of adult complexity and obligation. Pip, as well as the reader who identifies with him, begins to learn that it is not enough to think exclusively of one’s self, to seek exclusively one’s own aims. With this dawning awareness, the young viewer starts to become aware of some related complexities, and profundities.

Writing in 1861, Dickens was delivering a withering critique of the British class system, of the parasitism and corruption (Miss Havisham!) that allowed privilege to profit from the labour, and the hardship, of the humble. Pip is drawn to this system, which undeniably has its graces and its appeal (Estella!), but for all that he ultimately finds it to be immoral, and he honourably comes down to face his obligations and shoulder his share of the load. In 1946, at the victorious end of a great war, and at the point of the British Empire’s final dismantling, the continued resonance, as well as the striking new correlations of Dickens’ story were causes for great reflection, sources of both sorrow and consolation. How might it apply to our own desires and duties, to the challenges and opportunities of our own time? (Here’s a refutation, if it’s needed, of the sometimes suggestion that the arts don’t matter particularly. At their frequent best, they are practically endlessly affecting and edifying.)

As for the cinematic, this is a gloriously imagined and executed adaptation. Lean, together with his collaborators (cinematographer Guy Green and production designer John Bryan deserve special commendation—this is one of film history’s most beautifully mounted productions), have here managed the impossible: reducing the filmically untenable length and detail of the original, and doing so well with what remains that we don’t feel the loss. Here is another example of a common felicity relating to great stories. The book and the movie are complete in themselves, as well as being complementary to each other—we’re grateful to have both, and to not need to choose between them. Finally, special note should be made of a wonderful group of performances by a formidable acting ensemble. John Mills (too old perhaps as the adult Pip, but so fine in the role that objections fall away), Finlay Currie, Bernard Miles, Martita Hunt, Jean Simmons and Alec Guinness, in his first credited role, all worthily translate what may be Dickens’ greatest strength. Here are his indelible characters, seen in his stirring situations, entertaining and instructing us as in the original.