In the graveyard and out on the marshes a young man's destiny is shaped by a chance meeting with a lifelong criminal. The beautiful black and white gloom of these environments and this ominous meeting provide a striking start to David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations. In some ways, it represents the best example of the not entirely accurate impression general audiences have of the story. In other, fewer ways, it bears an approach distinctly borne of Lean's own vision. It's a good movie but it misses the main point of the book.
I read an essay by Jay Clayton included with a 1996 edition of the book that in part argues that Lean's focus is much more on the relationship between Pip and the convict, Magwitch; that the heart of the story in Lean's film is that relationship. I certainly agree. There's little of the moral anguish Pip feels about Joe who is here employed for comic relief more than anything. Bernard Miles as Joe drops his hat in the tea when when he visits the gentlemen, Pip and Herbert, a piece of physical comedy much broader than anything that occurs in the book.
Pip as an adult is played by John Mills whose freshness and honesty are somewhat at odds with the need to portray Pip's conceit. The film sadly lacks the scene where Trabb's boy mocks Pip's aloofness when he goes back to his home town. This omission is related to the fact that never once in the film does Pip say Estella makes him miserable. One suspects Lean was less suspicious of the gentleman lifestyle, and less enamoured of the idyllic lower class, than Dickens was. Pip's longing for Estella seems wholesome and Estella, as played by Valerie Hobson, seems only coy when she tells him she has no heart.
My favourite performance in the film is a young Jean Simmons as the younger Estella, though she too puts a great deal more human warmth into the role than is called for. She comes off like a version of Lewis Carroll's Alice with the arrogance dialled up.
Lean also makes the choice to make Biddy (Eileen Erskine) much older than Pip and no potential love interest for him. Of course, now it would be a distraction since Biddy would no longer represent a wholesome alternative to the addiction to Estella. One could argue a film from the following year, Out of the Past, was a better representation of the kind of internal conflict of man in his love for two women with Robert Mitchum torn between gentle, pure hearted Virginia Huston and the quintessential femme fatale Jane Greer.
A lot of the latter portion of the book is given over to Pip's endeavours to save Magwitch but in Lean's movie the love between the men is less affected by Pip's sense of what a gentleman should be. He doesn't seem to feel any particular dread of Estella learning of his connexion to someone so low. The rapport between Pip and Magwitch, portrayed ably by Finlay Currie, is much more like the relationships of two men across cultural boundaries in Lean's famous films of the 60s and late 50s--The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
And like those films, Great Expectations features Alec Guinness, here looking pretty adorably young and exuberant as Pip's flatmate Herbert.
Miss Havisham is played by Martita Hunt who was only 46 at the time. Quite lacking the horrific appearance ascribed to her by Dickens, she does give the role some effective fixedness, undermined by a finale that seems completely uninterested in her and Estella's story. The film's ending is of course twenty times rosier than even Dickens' revised ending.