#269 Great Expectations
(1946, David Lean)
“Pip, a young gentleman of great expectations”
UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGH period drama. As if to prove to me that an obsession with period drama based on dusty old literature is not a new phenomenon in British cinema, here’s Great Expectations, an old 1940s adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Go on then, let’s get this over with.
Like all Charles Dickens stories, this is the story of an orphan. It is the story of Pip (Anthony Wager / John Mills), a young orphan who encounters an escaped convict and visits a wealthy spinster named Miss Haversham (Martitia Hunt) as a companion for her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons / Valerie Hobson). Later in life, Pip inherits property from a mystery wealthy benefactor and moves to London to become a gentleman. Over time, he pursues Estella, tries to work out who the benefactor is and learns a few life lessons along the way.
Now, confession time, I’ve never read Great Expectations. I’ve read A Christmas Carol though and enjoyed it, so I’m of the belief that Charles Dickens was a fine author and rightfully celebrated. However, this movie does little to make his work look good.
See, this movie is everything that’s wrong with British cinema. For a start, it’s a period drama based on classic literature. While this certainly wasn’t as much of a sin in the 1940s as it is today (a lot more books have been written since Dickens, guys!), it’s still notable. It’s also horribly stuffy, melodramatic and self-aggrandising, as if somehow the movie expects the status of the novel to carry it entirely.
Its major problem lies in that old staple of old British movies – everyone talks as if someone shoved the BBC transmitter tower in their nether regions. Was Britain pre-1980 really this plummy and stiff? Because the movies certainly make it feel that way. What’s more, this stiffness is so apparent here that every single performance is devoid of personality and emotion, and as such it’s basically impossible to become interested in what’s happening.
This is painfully obvious in the fact the movie needs to inform us that Pip has realised that his wealth has made him mean towards the genuinely nice blacksmith fellow who raised him. Nothing in the performance reveals this, it has to be told to us because everything’s so stiff it just seems like Pip is being ultra-polite to everybody.
This particular detail also seems to be revealed way too early, meaning the moral of the movie kind of gets slapped in our face halfway through and the “revelation” later falls flat as a result. This leads Great Expectations to feel like it has no idea what its own message is.
We also have Estella, who isn’t believable as a romantic lead because she and Pip have absolutely no chemistry. It’s baffling why he continues to pursue her throughout the entire movie, and even more baffling that she feels the need to openly proclaim “I have no heart” which nobody would ever say about themselves. Just show us she’s a bitch and be done with it.
On these lines, Estella also ends up doing something really bitchy later on and we’re all supposed to be surprised that she did this bitchy thing despite the fact that she’s been a terrible person for the entire movie. SHOCK HORROR this person who isn’t very nice did a not very nice thing. HOW UNEXPECTED.
And then you have the ending, which smacks the audience round the head with symbolism and expects us to be wowed by it, before Pip and Estella ride off into the sunset and the movie just…stops. A quick cursory glance at the novel’s plot summary shows me that its original form lacked this over-the-top symbolism and instead was a subdued emotional conversation that brings the two together and I have no idea why this was dropped in favour of the utterly baffling ending that appears here.
So basically, no. No, no, no, no, no. Read the novel itself and give this a miss. It’s drab, it’s confused and it’s stuffy as all hell.
Starring John Mills, Anthony Wager, Jean Simmons, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt & Finlay Currie
Written by Charles Dickens (novel) and David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen, Ronald Neame, Cecil McGivern & Kay Walsh
Produced by Anthony Havelock-Allen & Ronald Neame
Music by Walter Goehr
Cinematography by Guy Green
Edited by Jack Harris
Favourite Scene: I didn’t really have one.
Scene That Bugged Me: That ending.
Watch it if: You’re incapable of reading the actual book
Avoid it if: You’re capable of reading the actual book