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  • Post last modified:December 23, 2022

Great Expectations: Educating Pip


Valerie Hobson and John Mills. Photo: Universal

After making one of the greatest romantic films of all time, Brief Encounter (1945), director David Lean moved on to what would become another much-loved masterpiece, the ultimate adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations”. It’s been said that Lean never read much and that it was his wife and the future co-writer of this film, Kay Walsh, who dragged him along for a theater production of the Dickens tale. On stage were a young Alec Guinness and Martita Hunt, both of whom would subsequently be cast in the film. Lean recognized something in the play that spoke to him; after Great Expectations, his next movie would be another Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist (1948). 

Running into an escaped convict
The year is 1812. Young orphan Phillip Pirrip (Anthony Wager), called “Pip”, lives with his mean-spirited sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). On a windy day when Pip is bringing flowers to the grave of his parents, he runs into escaped convict Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie). He threatens to beat Pip unless the boy brings him food and a file for his chains. Pip does as he’s told and steals a cake from his sister. However, Magwitch is subsequently caught. Grateful for the boy’s help, the convict doesn’t want to cause trouble for him and claims to have stolen the cake and the file from the blacksmith himself. Seven years later when Pip is a grown man working for his stepdad as an apprentice, an attorney, Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), tells him that a benefactor has offered to turn Pip into a gentleman. The anonymous person is willing to pay for the young man’s journey to London and social education. 

Pip supposes that the benefactor might be Miss Haversham (Hunt), an eccentric woman who isolated herself in her mansion after being left at the altar. A few years back, she arranged to have Pip come over to her place and play with her young, condescending niece Estelle (Jean Simmons). As Pip begins his education in London, he’s in for a number of surprises… 

Differences between classes
It is a rich story of a young, good-hearted man’s journey from boyhood to adulthood, one that teaches him that in order to be successful one must also be kind and helpful. The contrast between Pip and Estelle is obvious, the latter character a psychologically interesting figure who suffers from Miss Haversham’s negative influence but is not beyond redemption as the final, powerful scene shows. 

The story portrays differences between the classes, as Pip falls in love with London’s superficial entertainment scene and forgets his roots. There is also much tension in the relationship between Pip and his mysterious benefactor who eventually shows his face. John Mills really was too old to play Pip, but he does a good enough job; Wager is even better as young Pip. The same is more or less true for the part of Estelle; Simmons is terrific as the younger version, but Valerie Hobson is less engaging as the adult Estelle. The supporting cast has several excellent performances, especially by Guinness in his first speaking-role as Herbert Pocket, the fop who teaches Pip how to behave in London’s finer circles. 

Lean and his crew do everything to draw the audience into another time and place.

Lean and his crew do everything to draw the audience into another time and place. The sets are detailed and awe-inspiring; sound is ingeniously used in the scene where the benefactor reveals himself and you can hear the wind of the marshes again… The opening scene where Pip runs by the gallows on his way to the graveyard is strikingly shot by cinematographer Guy Green whose shadowy arrangements set the mood. 

An adaptation like this always starts out as an illustrated classic. But somewhere in the process it must be transformed into a movie. Few did it as well as Lean.

Great Expectations 1946-U.K. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Ronald Neame. Directed by David Lean. Screenplay: Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Kay Walsh. Novel: Charles Dickens. Cinematography: Guy Green. Art Direction: John Bryan, Wilfred Shingleton. Cast: John Mills (Phillip “Pip” Pirrip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L. Sullivan, Finlay Currie, Martita Hunt… Jean Simmons, Alec Guinness. 

Trivia: The novel was also filmed in 1934, 1974, 1989 (where Simmons played Miss Havisham) and 1998.

Oscars: Best Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration. 

Last word: “With me and the boy, Anthony Wager, [Lean] was very gentlecle. He seemed amused by us for some reason. It was a perfect part for me; 16 is the age of flirtation. […] In fact, [Wager] saved my life on the film one day. I had to go up and down those damn stairs so many times holding the candle that I was tired late one evening and I kind of relaxed and let my arm drop. Suddenly there were flames shooting up. My apron was on fire! Anthony just rushed in and brushed it out. He was there before anyone else could move. Really a great sense of timing. I often wonder what happened to him. He may have just given up acting and gone into business.” (Simmons, The Guardian)

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