A young orphan named Pip climbs from poverty as a blacksmith’s apprentice in the English countryside, to be the companion of a beautiful young girl and a lonely eccentric on a local estate, and then up the social ladder to London high society, where his rise as a gentleman is underwritten by an anonymous benefactor. The mystery of his sponsor’s identity is eventually revealed to Pip and he must decide how to resolve his debt to this generous stranger who has given him great expectations for a better life.
WINNER of 2 OSCARS: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography
NOMINATED for 3 more OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay
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David Lean’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name, is widely acknowledged to be the classic film version of this story, the one by which other attempts are still measured to this day. Contributing to the movie’s reputation is the high quality of its cast; its stark, haunting black and white photography; and its general faithfulness to the novel, although the screenwriters judiciously cut sub-plots and focus only on Pip’s story. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book, however.
The memorable opening sequence set in a country churchyard, where the orphaned boy, Pip (Anthony Wager), goes to visit his parents’ grave and is accosted by the menacing figure of an escaped convict sets the atmospheric standard for the rest of the film. We know we are in good hands and that David Lean has a complete grasp of both the visual and dramatic requirements of making a Dickens’ novel come to life. Lean has a way of making even the details of a scene evocative, as he shows here by the creative use of sound. He foregoes the use of swelling music, which a lesser director might have used to force emotion, and simply relies upon the wind whistling through the trees, and the sound of leaves sweeping across cold ground.
Lean also makes great use of high contrast black and white cinematography. This technique is used to especially good effect in an early sequence where the convict, Abel Magwich (Finlay Currie), is being tracked by the army, and Pip, and his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a blacksmith, have joined in the search. The intensity of the chase is heightened by the dramatic use of silhouetted figures clashing by night across vast expanses of lonely marshland.
As the narrative unfolds, and Pip’s prospects increase, the film provides an examination of the Victorian class system, which was a central concern of Dickens’. The author’s view is that the deceptive facade of wealth and status cannot mask the underlying corruptibility of men nor their susceptibility to believing that their position makes them intrinsically superior to others. Dickens’ condemnation of the unbridled pursuit of social station is represented in the array of characters he gives us. The moral and psychological dangers of great expectations are illustrated, for instance, in the minor character of Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery (Freda Jackson). She is an embittered woman, who treats both her brother and husband cruelly, due to her crushed social aspirations. She’s furious that she’s nothing but a blacksmith’s wife. The gloriously decrepit eccentric, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), whom Pip befriends and for so long believes to be his benefactor, is also an example of ruined hopes. She sits, year after year, in the midst of her cobwebbed lair, a living monument to the decay of the spirit, doggedly refusing to give up her anger at having been jilted on the day of her wedding decades earlier.
Pip’s (John Mills in the adult role) own weakness becomes evident when Joe Gargery comes to visit him in London. Pip is now a thoroughly gentrified young man, and is embarrassed by the socially awkward Joe. In a voiceover, he acknowledges, “... in trying to become a gentleman, I had succeeded in becoming a snob,” and has enough conscience to admit, “Joe’s simple dignity filled me with reproach.” Even, so Pip can’t let go of his pretensions and when he goes back to the country to visit, he prefers to stay in a local inn rather than be seen to room with his old friend.
The characters given the most sympathetic treatment are those who are the least interested in furthering their social fortunes. Joe Gargery and his second wife, Biddy (Eileen Erskine), content with their simple country life, and Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), a truly gentle man, and not simply a gentleman. They are not tortured by social desires and manage to live simply, without guile.
The story is rich in incident, and offers drama in the form of Magwich’s return and Pip’s conundrum as he must decide whether he should assist the former convict and thereby accept him, risking his cherished social standing if anyone should discover the true source of his fortune. His ultimate decision is in favor of Magwich and he attempts to help him escape England. The attempt backfires badly. Abel Magwich is sentenced to die, and as Pip is not his natural son, he is disinherited.
The love story revolves around Pip’s obsession with Estella, the young girl taken in by Miss Havisham, who treats him thoughtlessly. She refers to him condescendingly only as “boy”. Estella is Miss Havisham’s pet project, the physical embodiment of the old woman’s revenge on the male sex - a beautiful girl who will entice and then coldly reject men, breaking their hearts. Estella also provides the impetus for Pip’s desire to become a gentleman. He develops a horror of being seen as “common” in her eyes and eventually in anyone’s. The irony here is that, just as with Pip, Estella is eventually reduced to her own humble roots by the end of the story. It is revealed that she is the natural daughter of Magwich and a murderess, and thus has been rejected by the wealthy suitor she had ensnared.
The major way in which the movie deviates from the novel is in its unambiguously happy ending. Pip and Estella reunite as chastened adults, are now appreciative of their “learning experiences”, and happily walk off together. Charles Dickens wrote, in fact, two endings for this novel, which originally appeared in serialized form in London magazines in the early 1860s. Neither of the original endings offered a straight forward romantic solution. The one most commonly used in current editions of the book simply has Pip and Estella meeting again, acknowledging their shared past and how it had shaped them, and moving on from each other. Dickens’ alternate ending, his version of a “happy” ending, offered merely a tentative hope for friendship between them.
This version shines particularly because of the distinguished British cast, headed by John Mills as Pip, who always exhibits a quiet intelligence and never lets the colorful cast of supporting characters overwhelm him. Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham manages to be both vulnerable and sly at the same time. This movie marks Alec Guinness’ debut in a major role. He became a favorite of the director’s, and would go on to make 5 more movies with him. Here he is fresh faced and sweet tempered as Pip’s best friend in London, Herbert Pocket. A young Jean Simmons portrays Estella as a heartless but charismatic girl. You have no trouble understanding why Pip would be entranced by her. She is replaced by the calm presence of Valerie Hobson as the adult Estella. Other actors offer enjoyable characterizations - Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers, the attorney who acts as go-between for Magwich and Pip, as well as Ivor Barnard as Mr. Wennick, Jaggers’ secretary.