Pip’s life gets pepped after he pops into a graveyard in David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ penultimate novel.
Watching it now, Pip’s story is less than revelatory and perhaps a little too dependent on coincidence, but released at Christmas 1946, one can imagine the healing quality of this British rags-to-riches story with all its richness and romance. Along with some of the most memorable names in English literature, Dickens is interested in the poor, the mad, the criminal and the trappings of class. For him the key to success isn’t what but who you know from hanging out in graveyards.
Lean’s peerless direction still inspires, particularly the gothic graveyard and Miss Havisham scenes that sowed the pips for countless horror films. The Oscars for Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Cinematography (Black and White) feel well deserved, considering the detailed set dressing of Miss Havisham’s house, which makes it feel truly stuck in time, along with the depth of Lean’s lived-in shots. The sound design is equally ambient, summoning creaking gates, howling winds and talking cows.
The moo-vie also marks the first screen credit for Alec Guinness, and features a young Jean Simmons (not the one from KISS), with Anthony Wager and John Mills playing the most likeable Pip since Billy Boyd. If you want to see a director pip his rivals to the post or the largest bow tie in cinematic history, Great Expectations does not disappoint.