Once, during an English and Drama lesson at school, a classmate of mine said no great text had ever been turned into a great film. I disagreed and, though I could have cited Henry V, Barry Lyndon, A Streetcar Named Desire or several others, I choose as my example Great Expectations: a masterpiece on the page, I said, made into a masterpiece on screen. ‘Do you really think so?’ asked the teacher. ‘I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was crap.’
It was that incident, as much as the sheer magnificence of this movie, which made me want to include it here. If English teachers in England haven’t heard of this film, I wonder who else is missing out. David Lean’s adaptation of the great British novel is one of the great British films – and, more worryingly for my old Drama teacher, one of Eng Lit’s finest study aids: show it to a class of students about to read Dickens for the first time and, within 113 minutes, they would each have an uncanny impression of his work without ever having a read a word of it.
Some actors – Robert De Niro, for example, or Humphrey Bogart – have a knack for appearing in all-time great films. Alec Guinness (who would go on to feature in Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr Zhivago, Star Wars, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets…) displayed that fortunate ability from the very start of his career, appearing here in his first (speaking) role as Herbert Pockett, one of a stream of supporting characters made as memorable by Lean’s cast as they were by Dickens’s descriptions. (Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Frances L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers and – outstanding even in this company – Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as Estella are all unforgettable.)
But the performances on show, marvellous as they are, are only one facet of a film in which every detail is superb. The spell-casting costumes, Oscar-winning set design and cinematography, and a script that miraculously converts a three-volume novel into a two-hour film while retaining its full spirit and impact are all equally responsible for an atmosphere that is unmistakably, and joyously, Dickensian. The plot is, of course, unimpeachable and the editing – most conspicuous in the famous moment when Magwitch startles the young Pip – exposes as uninspired the arrangement of so many of the movies we sit through.
1946 was a vintage year for English language film. In America it brought It’s A Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep and My Darling Clementine, while in Britain it saw the release of the magical A Matter of Life and Death. Great Expectations is equal to any of them, a film to delight bookworms and film lovers, adults and children, and anyone who appreciates a brilliant story brilliantly told.