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Great Expectations (1946)

ITV // Unrated // June 23, 2008 // Region 0
List Price: £19.99 [Buy now and save at Co]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 19, 2008 | E-mail the Author
As I write this, nearly seven hundred Blu-ray titles have been released on these shores since the format first launched two years ago. Even with as sprawling
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and at least somewhat diverse a selection of films is available at our fingertips, I find myself paying attention more and more to the movies that are bowing on Blu-ray overseas. With so many studios across the globe having shrugged off region coding on the format, and with Blu-ray not suffering from most of the same headaches with converting from one video format to another as DVD does, there's an entire world of additional possibilities readily available. Classic cinema in particular is becoming better and better represented on Blu-ray overseas, most notably the astonishingly beautiful high definition presentations of The Seventh Seal and Black Narcissus.

One of the highlights of a particularly eclectic wave from British publisher ITV is David Lean's Great Expectations. First released in 1946, this adaptation was among the legendary director's first movies and remains perhaps the greatest translation of Dickens' work to film.

Great Expectations is, of course, the story of an orphan nicknamed Pip. It's not an easy life for young Pip, barely scraping by with an overbearing older sister who can barely stomach the sight of him or her kindhearted blacksmith husband. Pip's a good lad who deserves better than this lot in life. He even fetches food and a file for a half-starved escaped convict who surely would've died otherwise, and he continues to visit the crumbling mansion of Miss Havisham only to be mocked and belitted by her beautiful ward Estella week in and week out. Miss Havisham was jilted by her fiancee decades ago, and in the years since, she's used her wealth and influence to shape her adopted daughter into a heartbreaker who can exact back on men the suffering she's long endured.

Pip is somewhat startled to find that after several years of toiling away as a blacksmith's apprentice that he's attracted a mysterious benefactor. The handsome allowance he's given allows Pip to pursue his dream of becoming a gentleman -- of being a proper suitor for a lady like Estella -- and so he moves away from the marshes and moors and into the bustling metropolis of London. As wonderfully as things seem to be going for Pip in the city, he soon learns about the transforming influence of wealth and privilege, struggles with jealousy and unrequited love, and finds himself torn when he discovers the identity of his secret benefactor.

Even with the dazzling spectacle that would characterize so much of Lean's later work still another decade away, Great Expectations is a gorgeous
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film, and so much of the mood it evokes is owed to its black and white photography. That jarring jolt when Magwitch first tears his way onto the screen in the cemetary, young Pip clawing his way through the impenetrable fog in the wee hours of the morning, the sight of Havisham's cavernous dining room blanketed in cobwebs and shadow, a rotting wedding cake untouched by anyone but mice and insects still on the table all these decades later...much of that impact would've been sapped away with the glossy sheen of Technicolor.

Great Expectations brilliantly carries the color and character of Dickens' story to the screen, and it's a remarkably faithful adaptation. The ending is quite a bit different, but these changes feel so natural and wholly earned that those who haven't read the book in ages may not even realize its final moments have been touched.

Much of the strength of this adaptation can be attributed to its wonderful cast: Anthony Wager's wide-eyed innocence as the young Pip, the jaw-droppingly beautiful Jean Simmons who captures his heart as a teenaged Estella, the detached charm of Valerie Hobson after Estella returns from Paris a properly educated lady, the menace and depth that Finlay Currie brings to Magwitch, the kindly blacksmith infused with a convincing warmth by Bernard Miles, and Francis L. Sullivan as the most cacklingly no-nonsense portly lawyer this side of Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution. A future mainstay in Lean's work, Alec Guiness makes his first noteworthy impression on the screen as Herbert Pocket, Pip's best friend and roommate. Special notice must also be paid to Martita Hunt in a standout role as the frigid Miss Havisham, bringing to the character a convincing regal quality even as she's cloaked in a self-exile draped with cobwebs. John Mills is initially a curious choice to play the barely-adult Pip -- at 38, Mills was nearly twice Pip's age and looks it -- but such concerns are quickly forgotten. Mills effortlessly balances Pip's newfound snobbery and self-indulgence with glimpses of the kindly, humble child he once was, making for a compelling lead.

Great Expectations is an exceptional film and a more than worthy adaptation of one of the 19th century's most enduring works of literature. Highly Recommended.

Video: It may not be the world class restoration lavished upon other classic films on these high definition formats, such as The Seventh Seal, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, and ITV's own Black Narcissus, but I'm still fairly impressed by how well Great Expectations translates to Blu-ray.

Great Expectations consistently looks natural and film-like throughout, with its grainy texture not suffering from any signs of being smeared away by unwelcome digital noise reduction. Tiny flecks of dust and thin vertical lines are visible throughout much of Great Expectations' two hour runtime but are light enough to easily be ignored, only becoming particularly distracting when the screen fades to black and during the last ten minutes or so of the film. Even if this Blu-ray disc isn't as startlingly beautiful as more meticulous restorations have been, the 1.37:1 image is considerably better defined and more detailed than the Criterion DVD, and there's more than enough of a difference to make for a compelling upgrade. My biggest complaint, aside from the modest wear, is that some detail is lost in the shadows, and that coupled with the fairly weak black levels makes for somewhat of an odd combination. A sample screenshot illustrating this is provided below.

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While Great Expectations would benefit greatly from a proper restoration, and it's not in the same league as some of the other classic films available for import, I have no qualms at all about giving this Blu-ray disc reasonably high marks. Great Expectations has been encoded with VC-1 and is provided on a single layer disc.

Audio: While some may grouse at the lack of lossless audio on this Blu-ray disc, Great Expectations is unlikely to sound any better without
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a full-fledged restoration. The monaural Dolby Digital soundtrack (2.0; 640Kbps) boasts a limited dynamic range, leaving the strings in the score and scattered gunfire sounding rather thin. There's also a faint hiss lurking in the background, and the fidelity of the score seems particularly harsh as Great Expectations draws to a close. Still, the film's dialogue remains clear and warm throughout, and what limitations the soundtrack has aren't entirely unexpected. It's a perfectly listenable effort from ITV.

Optional English subtitles have also been included.

Extras: There are no extras. For anyone interested in a comparison, the DVD released by Criterion on these shores offered a theatrical trailer and an essay in the liner notes.

Conclusion: More than sixty years later, Great Expectations is still perhaps the greatest film adaptation of any of Dickens' work. This wouldn't be my recommended starting point for home theater enthusiasts eager to import classic cinema in high definition, but Great Expectations would be a rewarding addition to any Blu-ray collection. Highly Recommended.






Highly Recommended

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