“Great Expectations” is an intriguing study of social class, gender, and morality in Victorian times based on the novel by Charles Dickens. While many versions of the story have made it to film, none are as well made as David Lean’s version, despite the fact he based it on a live theatre viewing back in 1939. A photographic memory of the story combined with the right casting, sets, and film score is what made “Great Expectations” so successful when it was released in 1946. As the central figure of the story, Pip is an orphan who believes there is nothing better held for him in life than becoming a blacksmith, the same occupation his brother-in-law. It’s through an unusual turn of events that thrusts Pip into a higher social class and educates him on how to deal with the new found fortune bequeathed him by a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous until he turns 21 years old. Taking place during the winter season, symbols of Pip’s rites of passage into adulthood crop up in the first scenes of the film: the crosses on the grave plots, a dinner party that includes his sister’s comparatively wealthy relatives, and his introduction to Estella; his first girlfriend.
The opening scene shows young Pip (Anthony Wager) in the graveyard planting a bouquet of flowers on his parents’ grave. The dead trees and creaking branches, combined with a deep mist make the graveyard an altogether gloomy place. Whilst in the graveyard he runs into an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Abel scares Pip into bringing him food and a metal file so that he can file off the chains attached to his legs. Abel forces Pip to swear he never saw him lest Pip report to the authorities his whereabouts. Pip keeps his word, then runs home where he lives with his sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). His sister is upset with his being late for supper and whips him. Joe is more sympathetic to the lad but has little influence over his wife’s actions towards Pip. Pip has an inquisitive mind and asks his sister all kinds of questions but she rebuffs him, believing he should not concern himself with the facts of life. Hearing the signal from outside to alert villagers of the presence of an escaped convict, Pip nonetheless gets on with his meal then obediently goes to bed as he is told. Late that night Pip creeps out, taking a pork pie and a metal file with him to give Abel, who remains hidden in the graveyard. On his way to see the escaped convict, Pip runs past a field of cows, hearing voices coming from the animals as if they were talking about the deed he was about to commit. Before Pip encounters Abel, however, he is surprised to see another escaped convict, Compeyson (George Hayes), who was travelling with Abel since both of them were caught as felons for the crime of circulating stolen banknotes. Abel is grateful for the small but kind deed Pip did for him and makes it a point to never forget the young boy’s role in his escape to freedom. Unknown to Abel, Pip later appears with Joe when they join a band of soldiers seeking the escaped convicts who are then caught and tried. Abel is sent far away to New South Wales in Australia where he later becomes a farmer, wealthy enough to bequeath land and money to Pip, all in return of the simple deed the boy once performed for the convict in the graveyard.
A year after the incident, Pip is sent away to visit the home of the wealthy eccentric Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a woman who was stood up at the altar on her wedding day and has not been outside of her house since. As with the graveyard, the house is dark and dreary but instead of creaking branches and a mist, dust and cobwebs dominate everything from the Bible on the dresser to the wedding cake, which has been consumed by rats. Unable to overcome her misery, Miss Havisham desires to have Pip come over and play. Pip is willing to get away from the old farmhouse for a change, but what he does not expect is a pretty young girl who ultimately steals his heart, then breaks it. Estella was adopted by Havisham and trained to be apathetic towards men, even those who fell in love with her. Young Estella (Jean Simmons) is as much a recluse as Miss Havisham, at least until she is sent off to a finishing school for girls in France. Estella makes no secret of demeaning Pip, who she incessantly refers to and addresses as “Boy.” Estella does not have a high opinion of Pip, simply because she was taught to feel that way about boys.
One day while visiting Miss Havisham, Pip meets a boy close in age named Herbert Pocket, who is sitting in a tree and wants to challenge Pip to a duel. Herbert is to be an heir to the Havisham fortune, already groomed for society and wants to challenge Pip in a boxing match. Pip wins the match, and Herbert proves to be a gracious loser – an indication of his upper class breeding. That is not the last time Pip sees Herbert, for they later become roommates in London when Pip goes to work for a lawyer.
Back home, Pip is encouraged to go to London after receiving news he has inherited a sizable amount of land, along with money, from an unknown benefactor. Pip is excited about his trip to London, and his foster parents, the Gargerys, are just as happy for Pip, knowing that his move up the social ladder will benefit him in the long run. Pip’s desire to become a gentleman is finally realized, something that will hopefully help him be better accepted by Estella and Miss Havisham- even though both dislike males regardless of class.
Three months after Pip spends time with Miss Havisham and Estella, his sister becomes sick and dies. She is buried in the family plot when a family friend named Biddy (Eileen Erskine) comes along to help out at the homestead. One day Pip tells her that he wants to become a gentleman, and move up the social ladder to success. Miss Havisham is more than happy to help tutor the young boy in the social graces and equip him with the knowledge he needs to be a gentleman instead of just a working class member. No longer having to worry about being an apprentice blacksmith, Pip meets Jaggers, (Francis L Sullivan) a London lawyer who knows Miss Havisham and is prepared to give him a white collar job in the city, in addition to a room with Herbert Pocket. Naturally Pip believes Havisham is behind all of this, helping to support him while he works in the city. Pip is ready to meet Joe’s “great expectations”, putting his inquisitive young mind to practical use. With new clothes and ambition to succeed, Pip is also counselled by Jaggers to keep his nickname, and not be referred by his real name of Philip Pirrip.
Pip learns the truth about Estella and Miss Havisham through Herbert Pocket, and the two become firm friends as well as roommates. Pip understands why Estella treated him the way she did, even though this does not change his feelings towards her. While he is adjusting to life in London, he receives a letter from Joe who plans to visit him and witness his progress. Once Joe arrives and sees the life Pip now leads, he feels awkward, even battling a catch with his hat which lands in the teapot on the table. Joe feels inadequate, realizing Pip is much more at home in the city working for Jaggers rather than being with his brother-in-law. Joe leaves Pip, causing Pip to feel deeply hurt, wondering if there was some way he could reconcile the once close relationship he had with Joe. Despite the feeling of loss versus having actually lost a close relationship with Joe, Pip once again has the opportunity to see Estella, who has returned from France. Now a proper young lady and quite beautiful, Estella is prepared to be courted by many an admiring male. One of her many devotees is Bentley Drummle, (Torin Thatcher) a well bred man who is seen about London with Estella. Pip observes Bentley watching Estella at a dance, questioning why Estella has taken to him when she previously denounced any personal interest in men. Bentley seems to be unscrupulous with the way his lips part slightly as he watches her move on the ballroom floor, which only causes Pip to dislike him even more. Pip’s one close encounter with Bentley happens in the city when Bentley is ready to go out riding, and the brief exchange that takes place between them makes Pip conclude that Estella’s taste in men is on a par with her own androphobic tendencies.
Pip doesn’t meet his benefactor face to face until he is at home one cold and rainy night. Much to his surprise, Abel Marwitch shows up and tells Pip his story. Pip has his scruples about accepting any kind of bequest from Abel, since upper class individuals did not associate with convicted felons. Pip does Abel one last favour, though, in learning that Estella is his long lost daughter, confirming an inheritance for the woman he loves and eventually marries.
Pip’s last days in London are marked by illness which causes Joe to fetch him and bring him home to the house Pip grew up in as a child. Even though Pip has had a taste of the upper class, he does not feel out of place back home. The one thing he does miss the most is Estella, who he reunites with in the old house not too far from the blacksmith’s. Pip believes Estella is too good for living in the dark, much the same way Havisham did, and is intent on giving her a new life, one that is bright and happy. Pip recognizes that his life has been unusual in the first twenty five years of his life, marked by wealth, heartbreak, tragedy (especially when he tries to save Miss Havisham from being burned to death), and love. He has not completely lost sight of the values he was raised with even when he lived a comfortable life in London.
The casting of the characters from the Dickens novel is perfect to the point where they look like the black and white illustrations from when it was first published as a serial in 1861. John Mills was in his late 30′s when he made “Great Expectations” but looks years younger than his age at the time, making it possible for him to pull off the wide-eyed naïf when he first sets foot in London. Martita Hunt turns in a compelling performance as Miss Havisham, the spurned woman who has no other goal in life but to train Estella to detest all men, no matter what type of relationship she had with them. Anthony Wager is young Pip, who sees the world from his own view, a theme not uncommon with Dickens’ novels, and one that is comparable to that of Phillip in Carol Reed’s “The Fallen Idol.” Like John Mills, Jean Simmons also portrayed a character much younger than herself, a time when it was natural to spurn boys, not be attracted to them. Ivor Barnard, Torin Thatcher, and Eileen Erskine provide supporting roles that are memorable, as small as their roles were in the film version of Dickens’ story.
Lean’s screenplay and direction in “Great Expectations” earned him an Oscar nomination in 1948, but it was the cinematography and set decoration that actually won the much coveted award. The sets are realistic and recreate the atmosphere of Dickens’ England that make it a desirable, longed for place in time. “Great Expectations” remains a timeless story for its lessons in life and even more importantly, how an individual has the power to influence one’s present environment, as in the case of Pip. Shown on PBS on a Saturday night several decades ago, “Great Expectations” has stood the test of time as a story in human nature which can be applied to any century of human civilization.