Ranking: #27/111

Director: David Lean (Britain)

Genre: Social Drama/Romance

This is an epic social drama adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens. So many of the greatest films have been adapted from the best novels and plays. The difficult part is bringing all the original characters alive, as well as the character of the times for period dramas like this one. In such adaptations, the film director must respect the literary source while maximising the qualities of cinema. It would be difficult to exceed the brilliance of David Lean’s cinematic adaptation of the much-loved Dickens story. To help him succeed, he assembled a phenomenal cast, led by John Mills, who gave a magnificent performance as the adult Pip, and Alec Guinness, in his first major screen role, as Herbert Pocket.

After four collaborations with the brilliant Noël Coward, David Lean was ready to take on Great Expectations.

Lean stays true to the original narrative conjured up in the rich imagination of the famous nineteenth century English novelist. But he invested so much atmosphere into the film, and inspired his actors to put so much passion and authenticity into their parts, that the audience is transported into a different time and place, re-living the events through the eyes of the lovable main character. The stark black-and-white photography and evocative lighting are a big part of this atmosphere, which was similar in effect to Lean’s Brief Encounter, as well as to Anthony Pelissier’s Film Noir masterpiece and literary adaptation, The Rocking-Horse Winner.

Lean’s filmic atmospherics are most evident in the opening scene when young Pip visits the graves of his parents near the marshes on a bleak winter’s evening. I also loved the scenes shot in the sinister and eerie Satis House, run by the embittered spinster Miss Havisham, with its sense of dank decay and of a faded, cobwebbed aristocracy. These scenes are nothing short of visual marvels.

Great Expectations just blew me away with its vividness and its drama. The fire that eventually destroys Miss Havisham is ferocious, almost like a fire of judgment on a rotten place which has shut off life and turned in on itself. The sense of liberation when Pip opens the dusty ornate curtains to let the daylight flood into Satis House is palpable.

The Criterion Collection rates this as “one of the great translations of literature into film” (https://www.criterion.com/films/566-great-expectations). Surely, Charles Dickens would have been smiling from ear to ear if he’d been able to see his ageless story turned into such expressive cinematic art.