The first stretch of Great Expectations, prior to the one year jump-ahead, may be the finest passage in David Lean’s œuvre, principally for its conjoining of his splendid evocation of Pip’s anxious orphaned boyhood and Guy Green’s haunting, crisp, gray (and Oscar-winning) black-and-white cinematography. Especially wonderful, and gorgeous, is Pip’s secret return to the fog-drenched cemetery, where both parents are buried, to bring food and a file to the escaped convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie, giving the film’s best performance), who has threatened to see the poor boy, who lives with his switch-flicking sister and her salt-of-the-earth blacksmith-husband, Joe Gargery, separated from his liver—and this a boy who has already suffered such losses! Something else always weighs in for me: Anthony Wager, who plays Pip, is the spittin’ image— the spippin’ image—of my father, as old photographs of his teenaged incarnation attest. Alas, I have little use for Pip once, beginning at twenty, he is played by middle-aged John Mills, who gives an emphatic, lame (although star-making) performance. Even worse is what happens to Estella, Miss Havisham’s revenge on men for having been once jilted at the altar; she becomes Valerie Hobson after being exquisite Jean Simmons. Hobson, a tepid actress who got the part only because she was married to one of the scenarists, had an even worse marriage ahead of her—to Secretary of State for War John Profumo, whose taking up with a Russian spy’s mistress pressured British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation.
     Many feel that Lean’s film remains the best screen adaptation of Charles Dickens. While I prefer other films (for instance, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 Scrooge), Lean’s pierces with the whole idea of “great expectations,” although François Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1969) would weigh in most memorably on this score.

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