Favourite Films by Favourite Directors: David Lean’s Great Expectations

This is the first in an occasional series on favourite films by favourite directors. First up: David Lean. Obviously his back catalogue features an embarrassment of riches, and I could have picked Brief Encounter, The Bridge of the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago, but my absolute favourite of his remains an earlier gem: Great Expectations.

A monochrome masterpiece, Lean’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is one of the greatest films ever made by any standard. It is a vivid dream of a movie, so infused with cinematic magic in every frame that it became one of the most important and influential British films ever made. I have a love of Great Expectations for many, many personal reasons and count it among my top five favourite films of all time. Here are just ten reasons why:

NOTE: spoilers from this point.

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“Keep still you little devil or I’ll cut your throat!”

The opening sequence has to be one of the most overwhelmingly atmospheric reels of celluloid in existence. From the moment the young Pip stands at his parents graveside, creaking trees looming over him (inspiring countless horror movies in the process), the film grips the viewer and refuses to let go. The subsequent sudden appearance of the convict Magwitch is brilliantly conceived. I also love the moment a few scenes later where Pip imagines the cows talking to him.

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“You can break his heart.”

The early scenes in Satis House, where Pip encounters Miss Havisham and Estella for the first time, are splendidly sinister. Jean Simmons is perfectly cast as the young Estella (against Anthony Wager’s young Pip). It’s worth adding at this point that the entire cast is excellent, with the arguable exception of Valerie Hobson as the adult Estella. She is merely good, whereas, say, Vivien Leigh would have been electrifying as the object of Pip’s obsessive love. However, since Hobson was producer Ronald Neame’s niece, perhaps nepotism was a factor.

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“Who gave you leave to prowl about?”

Still in the early Satis House scenes, the moment where Pip encounters Herbert Pocket, who immediately picks a fight with him, is hilarious. I also love the way this fight is mirrored in his adult life, when he and Pocket become friends. Incidentally, Alec Guinness is wonderful in an early role as the adult Pocket.

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“In trying to become a gentleman, I had succeeded in becoming a snob.”

When Joe Gargery, the blacksmith who raised Pip, visits him in London once he has entered his fortune, the resultant awkward and embarrassing scene is both hilarious and poignant. What’s more, it underscores one of the key themes in the story: becoming rich doesn’t make you a better person. There is also a wonderful line in the subsequent scene, when Pip, concerned about appearances, refuses to stay with his loving relatives during a visit to their part of the country: “All swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself”.

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“Who am I, for heaven’s sake, that I should be kind?”

The final dramatic confrontation between Miss Havisham and Pip is superbly handled. In fact, the entire Miss Havisham plot remains one of the most bone-chilling studies of bitterness in any story I can think of. But even more impressively from a cinematic perspective, the fire that subsequently destroys her is one of the most singularly disturbing and terrifying scenes in film history. It is not what you see, but what you don’t see that makes the sequence so unforgettable and utterly nightmarish. Lean’s command of the scene is masterful, especially in the way he moves his camera along that long dining table, masking the screaming woman from view.

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“There’s a nod for you.”

After the horrors of Miss Havisham’s demise, Lean finds time for the not-strictly-necessary “Aged P” comedy moment. Incidentally, even though Lean miraculously manages to condense the text to a running time under two hours (inevitably cutting some elements) he somehow retains the essence of the novel. I for one I am glad that so much of the humour was retained, providing the ideal counterpoint to the darker elements.

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“I am going to put a case to you, but I admit nothing.”

The lawyer Jaggers is one of my favourite characters in the story. He is, as his assistant Wemmick describes him, “deep as Australia”. At first glance he appears brusque, blunt, indifferent and cynical, but eventually we get a glimpse at the warmth and decency that lies buried deep within him. Jaggers explains to Pip, in non-legally binding terms, how he had saved Estella as a baby, seeing an opportunity – for once – to do good for a poor child who would otherwise almost certainly end up in desperate poverty and ultimately criminality.

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“Lord be merciful to him; a sinner.”

I find the final scene between Pip and his secret benefactor, deported convict Abel Magwitch, incredibly moving. There are verses in the Bible that spring to mind which run alongside this entire part of the story in Matthew chapter 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink… I was in prison and you came to visit me.”). Pip’s merciful actions to Magwitch earned him an extraordinary reward, which mirrors what Jesus goes on to say later in the above verses. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.

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“Please don’t be so good to me.”

If any scene is likely to bring a tear to my eye in Great Expectations, it’s this one. In spite of the way Pip has treated him, Joe takes Pip home and cares for him during his lengthy illness. When he wakes up, Joe’s simple kindness overwhelms Pip, but Joe is more than happy to put the past behind them. He then echoes his “what larks!” remark from earlier in the film, bringing about a beautiful restoration of their relationship.

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

Time to be a bit controversial. I prefer the ending to Lean’s version of Great Expectations to what is actually in the novel. Dickens originally wrote a sad ending, then compromised with a less bleak finale, but for the film at least, Lean judged that an unambiguous, triumphantly happy ending was the way to go. In my opinion, he was absolutely correct. The final moments of the film, where he enters Satis House one last time, laying to rest the ghost of his childhood, are poignant, dramatic and deeply satisfying. His defiance of Miss Havisham’s bitter spirit breaks the spiritual curse that has plagued him and Estella for their entire lives. Free of her malign influence, they are finally able to start again, and live happily ever after. Perhaps it is the hopeless romantic in me, but after everything they went through I really feel they both deserved that happy ending.

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