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GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Director: DAVID LEAN

U.K.| 1946. BLACK AND WHITE. 118 MIN. NEW 35MM PRINT.


‘CHOOSE WHAT YOU WANT TO DO IN A NOVEL,’ SAID DAVID LEAN ABOUT ADAPTING A LITERARY CLASSIC, ‘AND DO IT PROUD.’ HE DID DICKENS PROUD: TO THIS DAY, HIS FILMS OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS AND OLIVER TWIST ARE THE YARDSTICK BY WHICH ALL OTHERS ARE MEASURED.

The critic James Agee thought that Lean’s version of Great Expectations just illustrated the story nicely, but it does a lot more than that. From the unforgettable opening onwards, as John Mills’ narration ushers us eerily into a life-changing encounter between a lonely boy and an escaped convict in a deserted graveyard, the storytelling never falters. At the time its theme of social mobility, ironically developed in the story of young Pip who comes into ‘great expectations’, must have struck a chord with a post-war Britain gingerly casting off the dead hand of class snobbery and coming to terms with itself as a Welfare State. With hindsight, however, it looks like another of Lean’s doomed love stories, where two young people are elevated socially but destroyed emotionally by the misguided vengeance of their supposed benefactors. Even Dickens’s problematic happy ending is transformed into a subjective fantasy of wish-fulfilment: as in Lean’s other films, romance here is synonymous with delirium.

This is deservedly one of the best-loved of all British films, not least because of the shoal of exceptional Dickensian performances: Alec Guinness’s Pocket, Finlay Currie’s convict, Francis L. Sullivan’s lawyer Jaggers and, perhaps most of all, Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham—literature’s most famous jilted bride, and Lean’s definitive frustrated romantic.—Neil Sinyard.

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