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Saturday Night Cinema: Great Expectations (1946)

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Tonight's Saturday Night Cinema feature classic is Great Expectations, directed by film legend David Lean (Dr. Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India, etc.). It is unmissable. Roger Ebert described the 1946 film this way, "[It] has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films, and [it] does what few movies based on great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds."

Great Expectations won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (John Bryan, Wilfred Shingleton) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay.

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Great Expectations is a 1946 British film which won two Academy Awards (Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography) and was nominated for three others (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay). It was directed by David Lean, based on the novel by Charles Dickens and stars John Mills, Bernard Miles, Finlay Currie, Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt, Alec Guinness and Valerie Hobson.

The script, a slimmed-down version of Dickens' novel that had been inspired after seeing an abridged stage version of the novel, in which Guinness (responsible for the adaptation) played Herbert Pocket and Martita Hunt was Miss Havisham, was written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. Guinness and Hunt reprised their roles in the film, but the film was not a strict adaptation of the stage version. The film was produced by Ronald Neame and photographed by Guy Green. It was the first of two films Lean directed based on Dickens' novels, the other being his 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist.

NY Times 1946 review:

If there is any lingering necessity of inspiring more Charles Dickens fans—not to mention more fans for British movies—the thing that should certainly do the job is the film made from "Great Expectations," which came to the Music Hall yesterday. For here, in a perfect motion picture, made in England (where it should have been made), the British have done for Dickens what they did for Shakespeare with "Henry V"; they have proved that his works have more life in them than almost anything now written for the screen.

[…]

That may sound slightly excessive to the fireplace-and-slippers Dickens fans, who seldom propose "Great Expectations" as one of the novelist's most distinguished works. They might have asked for something stronger in the way of a narrative. But the every-day movie-goer—and even the casual reader of Dickens' books—will not recognize any weakness in either the structure or the characters of this film. For, despite necessary elisions and compressions of favorite scenes, the picture is so truly Dickens—so truly human and noble in its scope—that the quality of the author is revealed in every shot, in every line. Mid-nineteenth century England—and a thrilling story—are crowded on the screen.

Are you familiar with this story—the story of little Pip, the poor orphan boy who is accosted on the lone and shiverin' marshes one fateful night by Magwitch, the granite-faced convict, escaped from the near-by hulks, whom Pip, in fear and compassion, befriends before the felon is caught and returned? Do you remember the contrivance by which Pip is later sent to "play" in the great, musty house of mad Miss Havisham; how he meets his love, Estella, there and is thus inspired with the ambition of becoming "a gentleman"? And do you recall how, years later, Pip is actually endowed with handsome means by a mysterious benefactor, how he goes to London and becomes a fancy blade and then suddenly runs into such adventures as only the nimble mind of Dickens could contrive?

Even if you do remember, it shouldn't lessen your enjoyment in the least from this glowing illumination of the warm and deliciously surprising tale. For the smooth team of Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame have caught it right down to the last shiver of a frightened youngster or the haughty flash in Estella's eye. A script that is swift and sure in movement, aromatic English settings and costumes and superlatively sentitive direction and acting are conjoined to make a rich and charming job. And a musical score of exceptional taste and understanding contributes, too.

In the large cast of unsurpassed performers, John Mills, of course, stands out, since his is the paramount opportunity to play the grown-up Pip. He makes of this first-personal character such a full-bodied, gracious young man that Pip actually has more stature here than he has in the book. And little Anthony Wager, as the boy Pip, is so beautifully quiet and restrained, yet so subtly revealing of spirit, that he is certain to win every heart. Neither space nor words are sufficient to praise adequately the rest—the thundering Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers, the shrewd solicitor: the sparrow-like Ivor Bernard as Wemmick, his Old Bailey clerk; the beautiful Valerie Hobson as the perverse Estella grown-up and the arrogant little Jean Simmons as this mettlesome creature as a girl; the tremendously comic Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, Pip's mad-hatter friend, or Finlay Currie as the beetling old Magwitch or Martita Hunt as mad Miss Havisham. Nor have we space or words to give more than a deeply grateful salute to Bernard Miles for making of Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, a vivid memory, nor to mention a half dozen others who are magically Dickensian in bits.

But we must say that all of them have managed to frame a Dickens portrait gallery to the life and to make real a tale of humble virtue elevated above snobbery and hate. It is such a tale as is enriching, for both young and old, in this day, and we offer as unforgettable some of its richest scenes. Like memorable moments from the novel, we will long cherish in our mind Pip's comical fight with the "pale young gentleman" that day at Miss Havisham's, or the desperate race to board the packet on the lower reaches of the Thames, with only the splash of water and the cry of gulls to break the tension of the scene. And always will we remember the sweetness in Joe's loving voice as he pours out his heart to his idol, "Dear old Pip, old chap!"

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