Great Expectations
d. David Lean / UK / 1946 / 118 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)

Take nothing on its looks and take everything on its evidence.

Aside from a certain Will Shakespeare, Charles Dickens has to be the most adapted literary figure in cinema history. Between Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol – not to mention Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, etc. – there have been well over 150 film and television adaptations of Dickens material, and yet it’s hard to think of anyone more adept at Dickens adaptations than the David Lean of the 1940s.

Much more than neat reflections of the austerity of post-war Britain, Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are two of the best literary adaptations, Dickens or otherwise. Moreover, they sit comfortably amongst the finest British films of all time.

Lean’s Great Expectations is irrepressibly Gothic in the most Dickensian way possible, so full of darkness and light that it wouldn’t take much to imagine an alternate version in which Pip is a private eye and Estella his femme fatale. Nor does it take much to see the linear progression of this high-contrast imagery down through the cinema, via German Expressionism, to the austerity of 1940s Britain and, inversely, in its reapplication by Lean to nineteenth century England.

And yet, whilst the Dickensian world is full of darkness and light in a very literal sense, Dickens also displays an acute awareness of the ambiguity of society, the complexity of humanity and the danger of feeble caricature. One major element in the success of Lean’s adaptations – as many critics have noted over the years – is his adjustment to Dickens’ way of setting a scene, of describing a character’s surroundings in intricate, totalistic detail: an ‘all-at-onceness’, a ‘panoramic richness’.

Sure, Lean’s Great Expectations has its faults, most obvious being that John Mills looked (and was) far too old to play Pip as a young man, but its enhancement of Dickens’ key themes – weak males and strong (but ultimately compromised) females, the transcendence of class and the perils of snobbery – hits upon precisely the right tone.

And if nothing is clear-cut in the world of Dickens – a world in which individual characters (including, and especially, London) can easily represent both life and death, wealth and poverty, good and evil, light and dark – Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist remain the most evocative – and the most enduring – of any Dickens adaptations simply because this ambiguity is so clearly brought to bear in the cinematic realm, and because Lean has provided us with a vision which somehow feels closest to Dickens’ own.

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