Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was published as a serial in All The Year Round, a magazine he edited, in late 1860 and early 1861. George Bernard Shaw called it Dickens’ “most compactly perfect book”. Right after war was declared in 1939 one of the few new plays staged in London was a production of Great Expectations, which David Lean, then a film editor, and his wife went to see. It had been adapted by the 25 year old Alec Guinness, who played Herbert Pocket. Guinness’s one time acting mentor, Martita Hunt, played Miss Havisham.
In 1946 Lean, who had become a director and had several hits including film adaptations of Noel Coward plays – Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter—wrote and directed this picture. Like David Copperfield, the story follows a central boy and girl into adulthood, and as in the film version of Copperfield, a pair of child actors and a pair of adult actors portray those characters.
The initial scenes of the young Pip encountering Magwitch, the convict, on the marshes are often cited as fine examples of editing and film design. The young Pip, played by Anthony Wager, is good, but Jean Simmons’ first performance in film as the young Estella is exceptional. The critic David Thomson referred to “the astonishing fact of Jean Simmons as Estella…a robust seventeen, but the personification of serene childish spite. Her scenes with the young Pip remain a lovely rendering of the bitter hopelessness of childhood crushes – and a fine study in Dickens’s notion of malicious beauty.” The adult Pip and Estella were played by John Mills and Valerie Hobson. Mills’ performance is of a self-satisfied and snobbish young man who learns to regret both those characteristics in himself. Mills is older than Pip should be, but to a great extent, British actors of his generation were not able to play young men while they were in the services during World War II, and caught up with their careers after the war. Hobson’s work as the adult Estella suffers from comparison to Simmons’ vibrant performance as a child.
About Guinness, in his first major film role, Thomson wrote “Pip suffers helplessly in every scene he shares with Alec Guinness’s Herbert Pocket. Was Guinness a thief or an innocent? Just watch the way he comes upstairs in his first scene, and then revel in the pious kindness with which he corrects Pip’s coarse manners.” About Martita Hunt’s portrayal of Miss Havisham, Roger Ebert wrote she "dominate[d] the [film's] early scenes, playing Miss Havisham as a beak-nosed, shabby figure, bedecked in crumbling lace and linen, not undernourished despite her long exile." Other performances worth noting are those of Finlay Currie as Magwitch, Francis L. Sullivan as the lawyer Jaggers, and Bernard Miles as Pip’s stepfather Joe.
This British film did unusually well at the Oscars. John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton won for best black and white art direction and set direction, and Guy Green won for best black and white cinematography. David Lean was nominated for best director; Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen were nominated for best screenplay; and the movie was nominated for best picture. In 1999 the British Film Institute chose its 100 best British films, in a vote by experts. David Lean directed three out of the top five, and Great Expectations was voted number 5. In each series I select, there is one film, at least, that I think is the best one, that more or less justifies showing the whole series. In this series, that picture is Great Expectations, and I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.