I can clearly remember the first time I realized classic literature could come alive on the page. It didn’t happen while digging through the rousing battles of “The Iliad,” or on a trip down the Mississippi with Huck Finn, or when Hamlet learned of his father’s true fate; it actually hit me in high school while plowing through Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” What initially struck me as another stodgy tale of class struggles and sobering societal norms, slowly became much more. At the time, I didn’t understand what had specifically moved me about protagonist Pip’s ascension from naive orphan to reluctant realist, but by the end of my college career, facing adulthood, I finally understood that his psychological, financial, and practical heartaches were the very things that allowed him to so honestly reflect on his life and experiences. I’ve revisited the book countless times ever since.
Director David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of the novel holds a special place on my shelf as well. I’m by no means an expert when it comes to classics from the golden age of cinema, but I also believe a movie’s age is irrelevant when the material it presents is so compelling. In case you slept through high school English, ‘Great Expectations’ tells the tale of an orphan named Pip (played first by Anthony Wager and later by John Mills) who lives with his older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband (Bernard Miles). An encounter with an escaped prisoner named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) leaves him shaken, but tests his character and kindness. As the boy grows older, a wealthy, unstable spinster named Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) brings Pip into her home to provide companionship to a spiteful girl in her charge named Estella (Jean Simmons). Of course, despite the girl’s best efforts to push Pip away, the boy becomes infatuated with her. When the boy finally becomes a young man, he learns that a mysterious benefactor has arranged the funds and opportunities necessary to make Pip a gentleman.
What follows is a story of unrequited love, personal turmoil, and frustrating bitterness. Pip’s path is no mere social journey, but rather a disparaging glimpse into both lower and upper class society, hope and heartbreak, and success and failure. Sure, the film has its share of stage acting and over exaggerated deliveries that would make Dickens twitch in his grave, but the performance style is no more distracting than it is in any other film of the era. The real power of ‘Great Expectations’ comes in its faithful adaptation of its source material. Lean is able to capture Pip’s world and, as a result, accurately convey how much his circumstances effect his trajectory through life. The filmmaker doesn’t utilize every character and subplot available to him (otherwise it would be a six-hour flick), but he manages to nab all of the key moments in Pip’s tale that affect the character’s emotional development and prioritize them over the linear narrative.
Alas, it’s a shame that no amount of thematic brilliance or source loyalty will score ‘Great Expectations’ any more attention from modern audiences than it’s already received. It seems viewers see a black and white still or read the year “1946” and run for the hills. Some blame accessibility or general lack of interest, but I blame fear and pre-conceived notions. Not only do older films allow modern viewers to appreciate the advancements of the medium, they offer a unique point of view that highlights the universal truths presented therein. They allow today’s filmfans to understand how much has changed over the years and how much has stayed the same. Acting style and black and white photography aside, ‘Great Expectations’ is just as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. We still fight to obtain wealth, we still come to the realization that material possessions don’t provide true happiness, and we still struggle to understand the purpose behind our lives and our experiences. Perhaps I’m overstating the significance of a 1946 production (or a 19th century novel for that matter), but it reveals the human condition and our need to understand ourselves.
Ah well. For those of you who have experienced Lean’s classic before, and for those willing to put aside your reservations and take a chance, ‘Great Expectations’ offers a faithful, at times haunting adaptation of one of Dickens’ most beloved masterpieces. It lacks the pretentiousness of the 1998 modernization and only falters in comparison to some of the more expansive mini-series that have been produced over the years. All in all, I can’t say it enough: Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ is great cinema.
’Great Expectations’ is faithfully presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a competent, technically proficient 1080p/VC-1 transfer. First and foremost, blacks are decent, whites don’t wash out the image, and midrange grays imbue the image with fairly impressive depth. Detail is the highlight of the transfer with fine textures, crisp edges, and plenty of minute surprises that are muddled and blurred on the Criterion DVD. Contrast wavers a bit, but is generally solid and bright, especially considering the age of the film. If I have any major complaints, it’s that black levels are never fully resolved, quite a bit of detail is lost in the heaviest shadows, and the print exhibits some damage and wear. Still, the fact that ITV didn’t employ edge enhancement, DNR, or any other meddling post-processing technique is a definite plus. The image is largely free of artifacting and source noise, allowing the transfer to deliver a clean and attractive presentation of the film.
While it’s not quite as breathtaking as other classic film BD imports like 'Black Narcissus' or ‘The Seventh Seal,' ‘Great Expectations’ still thoroughly outshines its 1999 Criterion DVD release and offers fans the best looking version of the film available to date.
Unfortunately, there's not a lot to praise about the disc’s Dolby Digital mono track other than its faithful representation of the original audio source. Low-end sounds are flat, dynamics are dull, and treble tones don’t have the strength to stand out in the limited mix. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, but there's really no reason it shouldn’t be. Still, I’d rather hear an authentic mono presentation than sit through a piss poor 5.1 remix. I do hope the eventual domestic Blu-ray release offers a rich and rewarding lossless track, as well as a carefully massaged surround mix, but I’m fairly pleased with this import’s audio as is. Regardless of my score, the disc’s audio shouldn’t dissuade anyone from ordering this release.
The UK import of ‘Great Expectations’ is all about faithfulness. The film itself is a wonderful adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel, the video transfer delivers an impressive rendering of its source, and the mono track sounds as good as any sixty year old audio source could sound. Sure, the disc doesn’t have any supplements and you do have to have an appreciation of older cinema to enjoy the film, but this is a classic in every sense of the word. Far from a risky import, this disc is exactly what importing foreign titles is all about: nabbing a well produced BD that probably won’t receive a domestic release anytime in the near future.
Thanks to Randy Gresham ("RandellG") for providing this disc for review. It's always appreciated!