Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

“I have come back to let in the sunlight!”


The trailer for Great Expectations displays the text “What forbidding mystery lay behind the shutters of Satis House?”. By 1946, Citizen Kane and Xanadu had already screened across the world whilst, prior to that, the Oscar-winning Rebecca portrayed the mystical Manderlay too. It seems that cinema had a huge interest in large, decaying buildings – a relic of the past and an old tradition that, within its walls, secures madness in the mind of its tenants. Great Expectations is much less obsessed with the ‘mystery’ of Satis House – despite what the trailer says – and is much more obsessed with the world outside of the house and the fascinating characters that inhabit that world – we all know Pip, Estella, Magwich, Mrs Havisham and Mr Jaggers – and, more importantly, we find out about the different strands of society these characters come from.

A Historic Text

The story was originally written in 1860 by Charles Dickens and, since then, it has been portrayed many, many times – with a 2012 release directed by Mike Newell (Ironically, another Harry Potter director in Alfonso Cuaron helmed the 1998 adaptation) and to star Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Irvine as ‘Pip’ (The screenplay adaptation is by David Nicholl’s – the writer of One Day, Starter for Ten and The Understudy). The fascination resides in the multiple themes Dicken’s raises that are still relevant today – issues about class and society, the idea about your heritage and where you are from – the insight into identity and how your upbringing affects your outlook on life and how you treat others. Our lead role in Pip (John Mills) is a role whereby from the very start we see how, through no fault of his own, he is forced to commit a crime – stealing bread and food for an escaped-convict (Finlay Currie). Though this guilt is carried throughout the film, it is nevertheless an attitude which is condoned in the morals of his good friend Joe (Bernard Miles) who states that he “wouldn’t let someone starve to death”. This kind gesture of Pip, though criminal in its theft, is an act which contributes to the rest of his life as an unknown beneficiary funds Pip to move to London and become a ‘Gentleman of Great Expectations’.

Small-Scale to Grand-Epic

David Lean is either known for the sprawling epics he created in the 50’s such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai or the small-scale theatre-adaptations of Noel Coward including Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. Great Expectations is the film which shows how Lean is moving away from the small-scale drama’s and towards bigger and grander stories. We have the small-scale story involving Pip and Joe or Pip and Hubert becoming close friends whilst Pip and Estella cross paths at multiple points. We also have the much more ambitious scale as we see the opening-shot of Pip running across the marshes towards his parents grave – almost hinting at the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia and potentially the single-child running across the frame akin to Empire of the Sun. The silhouettes backed onto the stunning vista’s lose no sense of scale in black and white. Even the themes become much more prevalent as we see the judge sentence a group of convicts to death – the slow pan across each criminal reveals the area of society they hail from. These are the underclass and poverty-stricken people who are forced to turn to crime merely to stay alive. This theme shows a bigger story to tell – and a scale that is not small at all, but in fact a global issue regarding the divide between the upper and lower class. Even the isolated, controlling and heartless character of Mrs Havisham (Martita Hunt) is clearly representing the upper-class and their lack of love and kindness – the very idea that the upper-class are blissfully unaware of the havoc they cause to other sects of society.

It is worth noting how Joe Wright looked upon David Lean’s Great Expectations as an influence for Atonement. I can see how John Mills and James McAvoy both have an air of innocence and yet a rugged working-class look that fits well in David Lean’s British films. Joe Wright specifically noted how:
“There are moments like Pip running through the graveyard with the trees wiping the frame from right to left as he runs. Then Pip slams into a great trunk of a tree which turns out to be Magwich. It’s another moment of genius … There are technical lessons to be learned from Lean – but emotional ones as well”.
That sequence is heightened by the great sound effects of wind and tree’s bending and twisting – as if to say that at any moment something will break…

The Future Looks Bright … 

It truly is a great film – and I think the only thing which may turn people off is the Georgian context: You either like period drama’s or you don’t. David Lean’s use of shadow and scale is something to be marvelled at throughout the film, but it is by no means exclusively static shooting. In fact, an expressionistic sequence as Pip is ill and staggers home to bed rivals those regular New York scenes as Pip walks directly to camera as passers-by knock past him and we see light flashing as the camera takes us to his bedroom before he passes out. 

One of the closing lines are “I have come back to let in the sunlight!” and indeed, David Lean is working on a bigger canvas and larger scale – Lean is opening the windows and showing all the detail to these characters and situations. We see Jean Simmons and Alec Guinness in early roles whilst a short sequence as Pip and Wemmick (Ivor Barnard) have to nod at different points to entertain Wemmick’s “Aged P” sprinkle a little humour into the mix. It was still a few years off before Lean set off for Hollywood, but clearly they knew he was coming. As the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing at the Oscars … it was only a matter of time before he would arrive.


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