On his fourteenth birthday young Pip (Anthony Wager) informs the reclusive Miss Haversham (a great Martita Hunt cameo) that he can no longer visit her and play as he is now of age to be apprenticed to the blacksmith, his uncle the kinder-than-credible Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). Six years later, so the first-person narrative tells us, we see young Pip hard at work at the forge. Young Pip, twenty years old at this point, is played by John Mills; a fine actor no doubt, but clearly middle-aged. With that in mind it would be impossible for this film to be rated at 10/10 no matter what else happened- the casting of your central character is pretty bloody pivotal to the success of a film and the transition of Pip from a callow country lad to a snobbish city gentleman cannot be portrayed convincingly by a man in his forties no matter how fucking good an actor he is.
But everything else in the film; every single other aspect is an absolute delight. From the brooding and atmospheric churchyard opening- all creaking branches, angular trees in silhouette, dark shadows and a tremendously sinister convict on the run (Abel Magwitch played wonderfully by Finlay Currie)- to the closing sequence with Pip returning to the house where so many of the defining moments of his life have been played out (the voices from every corner) and his confrontation with the haunted Estella (Valerie Hobson) there isn’t a pause or a wasted moment. Remarkable.
I love Charles Dickens and I do get really precious about adaptations of his work- perhaps a bit unfairly- because they necessarily chop things from the text and as I love everything in the text I find myself grimacing. Watchmen fans might have some sympathy with this. But this adaptation, though it does strip out from the book (not least the Miss Haversham/Compeyson twist) simply feels comprehensive. So much is included and, to make that possible, it moves at great pace- which I love- and the brilliant minor characters like Mr Wemmick and the Aged P, Herbert Pockett, Uncle Pumblechook, Bentley Drummle and Mr Jaggers all make the most of what little screen time they have. It isn’t a case of peripheral actors hamming it up and hogging scenes either, Lean simply creates the opportunity for each of them to create a distinctive and interesting role.
Great Expectations also looks great. I don’t know enough about cinematography to discuss his use of deep focus or back-lighting or all of the other technical things that may make it work, but I do know that it works. The monochrome is made to work brilliantly, contrasting the gloom of Miss Haversham’s huge house with the bright homeliness that Joe and Pip share with Biddy. I even loved the soundtrack, the way it enhanced the drama and injected humour in parts (the musical accompaniment to Mrs Joe calling for Pip and Joe to return is hilarious). The up-tempo music accompanying Pip’s journey to London reflects his excitement and supports the unusually rapid cutting employed at that point to build that atmosphere of immature anticipation.
If only the twenty year old Pip wasn’t played by a man old enough to be his father this would be flawless, it’s still a strong 9/10 though.