Great Expectations Review

Orphans, mysterious egalitarians and the life of the gentlemanly way are all founded in Great Expectations. It is the right period for this adaptation to release. When the period genre was finding its footing, the stuffy performances that followed seemed at home rather than out of place. Proper English and its spoken significance find their way through this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel from David Lean. His work on Brief Encounter the year before had opened him up to the highs and lows of fleeting romance, and it does not feel all that out of place here, in this adaptation starring John Mills.  

As the wind blows through the graveyard, Lean has encountered the stunning craft of Dickens. He adapts the book well, and his output is better than the written word. Tony Wager’s work as Young Pip is incredible, and it is the clarity of innocence as he encounters prisoners and the damned that make the disparity between innocence and guilt so clear. It is a shame it was not so well adapted in the novel. Lean compares the two and builds up a hard life for Pip. That build-up is necessary, for it means audiences can assess the relationship between Pip and the egalitarian surroundings he later finds himself in. To appreciate his burnt-out, run-down surroundings are integral to understanding the triumph of his later escape. Dickens never managed that, but Lean’s observations are not the greatest either. His supporting cast leaves much to be desired, and the framing of heavy-set dialogue is uninterested and, sadly, uninterrupted. 

But moments of poetic edification shine through, adapting the surroundings Dickens sought to chisel out magnificently. Lean is a great visualiser, and his work in Great Expectations has much to prove. For all his jargon-fuelled details on Pip and company, the visualisation is completed well. Stuffy houses and creaky floorboards, rabbits hanging in the pantry door. It screams of Old England, and Dickens defined that often in his novel. When approaching it in this Lean adaptation, there are some strong close-ups, heightened dramatics with good musical cues and an emphasis on the visual beauty of this black and white feature. It overtakes any dramatics the story could really wish for, and thankfully so. Great Expectations is a magnificent, technical feature, but its story will always be as flimsy as the weakest character. In this instance, it is a toss-up between the talking cows or Bernard Miles’ optimistic and frightfully energetic performance as Joe Gargery. 

It is still an essential adaptation. Great Expectations falls into the remit of “had it not been done now, it would be done anyway,” a bit like Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Some parts of life are inevitable. Adaptations of Dickens’ prose is one of them. Lean does a solid job of adapting a fine book into a finer, refined feature. Great Expectations details the scum of the Earth rattling through and taking advantage of those few kind souls, and the exploration of such is developed effectively. Foggy surroundings may open the life of Mr. Pip, but the closure he receives is a bittersweet one. He is still alone and struggling, but now finds himself in a different financial situation. Either way, like all of the characters found in Great Expectations, he is truly alone.  

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