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This week for our weekly cultural article we will be examining the David Lean’s (1908 – 1991) 1946 film Great Expectations, considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. When it was released in 1946, it was met with glowing reviews. Today, seventy years later, it has been described by Criterion as “one of the greatest translations of literature into film.”
David Lean’s Great Expectations captures the essence of Charles Dicken’s (1812 – 1870) literary genius by juxtaposing his memorable characters with the artful film direction of David Lean. Leans use of black and white to add to the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere of the film. Then there are the numerous dark, creepy, rundown, and ultimately human locations that burn themselves into the memory: the creepy graveyard where a young Pip first meets escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the Kentish marshes, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated and macabre home whose clocks are stopped at the exact time Miss Havisham learnt of her fiance’s betrayal, 19th century London, Mr. Jagger’s offices whose walls are decorated with the death masks of defendants lost to the gallows, the prison where Magwitch dies, and so forth.
Then there are the wealth of memorable characters the film presents to us. The most notable of these is Pip through whom we see all of the tragedy and injustice of early 19th century England. Pip acts as more of an observer to the world around him than an actual protagonist. We first meet Pip (Anthony Wager, 1932 – 1990) as a young orphan being raised by his overbearing older sister (Freda Jackson, 1907 – 1990) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Bernard Miles, 1907 – 1991). It is during this time that Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie, 1878 – 1960), a kind yet ultimately decent escaped convict, in the cemetery, and when his heart is broken by the coquettish Estella (Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010) and the dishevelled and deranged Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt, 1900 – 1969).
As the film progresses, we see Pip grow into a young man, played by John Mills (1908 – 2005), who, it could be argued, was perhaps a little too old to play Pip in his early twenties. This Pip has been bequeathed a large allowance by an unknown benefactor and travels to London with the view of becoming a gentleman. There he forms a friendship with the Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, 1914 – 2000) who helps him refine his manners. The adult Pip finds himself corrupted by the ponce and ceremony of the English upper-class and is ashamed to admit that he would have paid money to keep Joe Gargery, dressed in his cheap suit and awkward manner, away. Pip is forced to reexamine his views after discovering that his benefactor is none other than the escaped convict Magwitch, who was so struck by Pip’s childhood compassion that he was inspired to make something of himself and become his benefactor. Magwitch’s kindness and gratitude cause Pip to regain his lost humanity.
Great expectations represents a type of film that no longer exists: one that deals entirely with the human condition. These films are no longer made because they often do not involve exciting elements, but rather present characters that are flawed and suffering and places these characters in stories that are essentially tragic in nature. These films are no longer made because they do not fit into the blockbuster formula. Rather than the larger-than-life heroes of the blockbuster, films on the human condition feature characters that are ultimately flawed and suffering. These characters are placed in stories that are ultimately tragic in their nature. A far cry from the often over-the-top plots of the modern blockbuster. There is something deeply satisfying about films like Great Expectations which shows normal people to be capable of leading a dignified existence regardless of the tragedy and suffering they are forced to face.