I was a teenager in the early 2000s, so for me, Great Expectations evokes images of Ethan Hawke painting Gwyneth Paltrow like one of Jack’s French girls and, of course, the amazing kissing in the rain sequence.
However, I am willing to concede that the 1948 version of Great Expectations is by far the more complete, true to Dickens’ vision, and evocative of the spooky vibe that the book has in spades.
Pip is an orphan, raised by his shrewish sister and her simple yet kindly blacksmith husband. His childhood (and his entire life, really) is defined by a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict who has demanded Pip’s help and threatened his family in the process.
Shortly after this menace has left his life, Pip receives a mysterious summons to the ruined manor of the alive-yet-somehow-decomposing Miss Havisham, who for some reason would like to hire him as a companion. IDK it’s all very strange and mysterious. While there, Pip meets her beautiful but snobbish and icy ward Estella, who he (surprise surprise) immediately falls in love with.
Many years pass. Pip is now a young apprentice blacksmith, one assumes in his late teens although the actor’s efforts to pass for anything under 35 are laughable at best. Once more, he is treated to mysterious information from tenuous sources. A lawyer turns up at his house, telling him that he now has an anonymous benefactor who is going to pay for him to move to London and live as a gentleman. Where was this guy when I was trying to survive in New York City as an unpaid casting intern? Oh right, fictional, because this is a thing that never happens.
Pip thinks that his financial guardian angel is Miss Havisham, who is raising his social standing so that he can be in a position to pursue Estella. LOL you keep thinking that, Pip. Everything we’ve learned about Miss Havisham thus far suggests that she is a true and noble champion of true love and romance. JK she is bitter af.
As it turns out, his funding source is actually (drum roll please) the shady escaped convict who went to New Zealand and apparently made a fortune in sheep farming. This is why aiding and abetting always pays. I mean if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times.
Great Expectations has a lot going on, and is quite frankly saddled with lots of unlikeable characters even for a Dickens novel. It takes a director and creative team of some skill to craft an adaptation of this fairly unwieldy novel that is both faithful to the source material but also, you know, good. Luckily, they have David Lean.
The director who would later famously create iconic images of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia again shows an unerring eye and a unique visual style. The sets are rich, textured, and feel lived in, when many films of the same era have a distinctly sound stage feel to them. Miss Havisham’s gloomy estate is particularly striking, each room literally frozen in time as a reflection of her inability to move on from a traumatic experience in her younger days, when her fiance left her at the altar.
There’s an eerie feel to the house, as though it might be haunted. And perhaps it is -- Miss Havisham may as well be a ghost for how little she interacts with the earthly realm. Even the working-class seaside village that Pip calls home is filled to the brim with fog and atmosphere and a deep sense of foreboding.
While Great Expectations was nominated for five Academy Awards, the ones it won for were Cinematography and Art Design, which feels entirely appropriate, as this film succeeds largely on the merits of its amazingly gorgeous visuals.
The performances, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag, and I vacillated over them through the course of the film. As soon as we met the adult version of Pip for the first time, I was sort of...disappointed? John Mills is talented but was pushing 40 when Great Expectations was being made, so his youthful innocence and naivety doesn’t quite ring true and are quite honestly a bit painful to watch. But as the film goes on and Pip grows up, it works a bit better until by the end of the film I am totally invested in his performance.
Estella, however, doesn’t work for me at any point in the movie. A young Jean Simmons does a better job as the teenage Estella, but Valerie Hobson as Estella grown up puts in a remarkably bland performance. She isn’t able to play the iciness of the character, nor the internal struggle of a woman trying to overcome what she’s been trained since childhood to be. The end result is a boring, uninspired romantic interest, so much so that it’s difficult to understand Pip’s fascination with her.
Overall, this version of Great Expectations has a unique visual style that gives it tremendous added richness, and is faithful to the original novel not only in terms of plot elements but in tone as well. No, it doesn’t have an epic kissing in the rain sequence, but one can’t have everything.