The script, a slimmed-down version of Dickens' novel – inspired after David Lean witnessed an abridged 1939 stage version of the novel, in which Guinness (responsible for the adaptation) had 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.
The film is now regarded as one of Lean's best; in 1999, on the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films list, Great Expectations was named the 5th greatest British film of all time.
Orphan Phillip "Pip" Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his shrewish older sister and her kind-hearted blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). One day, Pip runs into an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who intimidates the boy into getting him some food and a file for his chains. Magwitch is caught when he attacks a hated fellow escapee, and is taken back to the prison ship.
Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), an eccentric rich spinster, arranges to have Pip come to her mansion regularly to provide her with company and to play with her adopted daughter, a cruel but beautiful teenage girl, Estella (Jean Simmons). Estella mocks Pip's coarse manners at every opportunity, but Pip quickly falls in love with her. The visits come to an end when Pip turns 14 and begins his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. Estella also leaves, for France, to learn to become a lady.
Six years later Miss Havisham's lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), visits Pip (played as adult by John Mills) to tell him that a mysterious benefactor has offered to transform him into a gentleman, one with "great expectations"; Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham. He is taken to London, where Mr. Jaggers arranges for Pip to stay with Herbert Pocket (played as an adult by Alec Guinness), who will teach him how to behave like a gentleman. From Herbert, Pip learns that Miss Havisham was left at the altar many years ago; she is determined to avenge herself against all men, and Estella is her instrument to break men's hearts.
After Pip turns 21, Joe Gargery comes to visit him, bringing a request from Miss Havisham to visit her. There he is delighted to be reunited with Estella (played as an adult by Valerie Hobson), who tells him, "You must know, Pip, I have no heart." Estella and Pip spend much time together. She confesses to Pip that despite flirting with the wealthy but unpopular Bentley Drummle, she has absolutely no feelings for him. Pip suddenly receives another visitor from the past, Magwitch, who reveals that he is Pip's patron. Pip, who always imagined that Miss Havisham was responsible for his good fortune, now realises that she was only using him.
Growing suspicious of Drummle's overtures towards Estella, Pip visits Estella at the old woman's house, where she tells him that she is going to marry Drummle. Pip confronts Miss Havisham, saying "I am as unhappy as you could have ever meant me to be." Miss Havisham, finally realising what she has done, begs his forgiveness. Pip leaves, but when she stands up to follow him, a piece of flaming wood from the fireplace rolls out and ignites Miss Havisham's dress. Her screams alert Pip, who runs back to save her, but fails.
After being warned that an old enemy (the other escapee at the beginning of the film) knows that Magwitch is in London, Pip makes preparations to smuggle the old man onto a packet boat and accompany him to the continent. Pip, Herbert and Magwitch row out to the packet boat, but are intercepted by the waiting police, tipped off by Magwitch's great enemy. Magwitch is seriously injured in a struggle with his nemesis, who dies when caught in the packet's paddlewheels. He had spoken to Pip of his lost daughter, and Pip's suspicion that she is Estella is confirmed by Mr. Jaggers. Pip visits the dying Magwitch and tells him of her fate, and that he, Pip, is in love with her; Magwitch passes away, a contented man.
Stricken by illness and with his expectations gone, Pip is taken home and nursed back to health by Joe Gargery. He revisits Miss Havisham's deserted house, where he finds Estella. Her plans for the future have also gone awry, as Drummle had broken off their engagement after Mr. Jaggers informed him of her true parentage. Learning that Estella plans to live in seclusion in the house, which she has inherited, Pip proceeds to tear down the curtains and force open the boarded-up windows; for the first time in years sunlight illuminates the room, revealing cobwebs, dust, and decay. Pip tells Estella that he has never stopped loving her. After hesitating, she embraces him and they leave the house together.John Mills as Pip as an adult
Jean Simmons as Estella as a girl. (Simmons later played Miss Havisham in a 1989 Great Expectations miniseries directed by Kevin Connor.)
Valerie Hobson as Estella as an adult, and as Molly
Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham
Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch
Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers
Bernard Miles as Joe Gargery
Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket as an adult
Anthony Wager as Pip as a boy
John Forrest as Herbert Pocket as a boy
Freda Jackson as Mrs. Joe Gargery
Eileen Erskine as Biddy
Ivor Barnard as Mr. Wemmick
Torin Thatcher as Bentley Drummle
O. B. Clarence as the Aged Parent
Hay Petrie as Uncle Pumblechook
Everley Gregg as Sarah Pocket
Restoration House in Rochester was Dickens inspiration for "Satis House", the decaying mansion of Miss Havisham. The production reproduced Restoration House in Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire.
Dickens based Joe Gargery's house on the forge in the village of Chalk, Kent – a replica was erected on St Mary's Marshes on the Thames Estuary. Pip and Herbert Pocket arrange to meet Magwitch and help him escape at Chatham Docks where slip 8 was used for the scene as well as exterior shots of the prison hulk ships. The River Medway and the adjacent St Mary's Marshes appear in scenes where Pip and his friend, Herbert Pocket, row their boat to a small inn whilst waiting for the paddle steamer to arrive. The ship used in the film was called The Empress, dating from the latter half of the nineteenth century and owned by Cosens & Co Ltd of Weymouth. She was brought down to Stangate Creek on the River Medway for the shoot. "New masts were stepped-in with square rigging and dummy sails, the funnel was lengthened and the paddle-boxes enlarged until it looked exactly right."
The company was based at Rochester, and stayed for six weeks at the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel – the Blue Boar in Dickens' novel. The unit for the location work for the film was based on a derelict naval fort on Darnett Ness Island in the River Medway.
The film won critical praise on first release, with many commentators hailing it as the finest film yet made from a Dickens novel. Dilys Powell, writing for The Sunday Times, was "grateful for cinema which includes so much of Dickens, which constructs its narrative from the original material with scarcely an intrusion" and Richard Winnington, in the News Chronicle, wrote that "Dickens has never before been rendered effectively into cinema terms". Gavin Lambert however, writing for the short-lived, but influential Sequence magazine, felt "that it is not so much an attempt to recreate Dickens on the screen, as a very graceful evasion of most of the issues". In America James Agee praised the film – "almost never less than graceful, tasteful and intelligent".
It was also the third most popular film at the British box office in 1947 and most popular movie at the Canadian box office in 1948.
The film's critical status has generally stayed high. Kevin Brownlow, a biographer of Lean, wrote that "Dickens' brilliance at creating characters was matched by Cineguild's choice of actors", and Alain Silver and James Ursini have drawn attention to the film's "overall narrative subjectivity", finding Lean "more than faithful to the original's first person style".
In 1999, it came fifth in a BFI poll of the top 100 British films, while in 2004, Total Film named it the fourteenth greatest British film of all time. It was the first British film to win an Oscar for its cinematography.
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.