Screenplay : Mitch Glazer (based on the novel by Charles Dickens)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ethan Hawke (Finnegan Bell), Gwyneth Paltrow (Estella), Chris Cooper (Joe), Hank Azaria (Walter Plane), Anne Bancroft (Ms. Dinsmoor), Robert De Niro (Lustig), Jeremy Kissner (Finnegan, age 10), Raquel Beaudene (Estella, age 10)
As Charles Dickens originally wrote it, "Great Expectations" was about the folly of youth and how success and wealth can ultimately ruin the human spirit. That theme is about as Dickensian as you can get, but you wouldn't know it from watching Alfonso Cuaron's updated version, which casts Ethan Hawke as Finn Bell, the fallen hero, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella, the obscure object of his tortured desire.
The film opens along the Florida beaches when Finn, as a young boy (Jeremy Kissner), goes out of his way to help an escaped convict (Robert De Niro) escape the police (a seemingly random event that has great bearing later in his life). After that, his life becomes entangled with Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), Estella's slightly mad aunt who lives in a huge, decaying mansion covered with rambling vines. There is little difference between the inside and the outside of the mansion (there is about the same amount of rampant vegetation), but Ms. Dinsmoor doesn't seem to mind. Though fabulously wealthy, she is the result of love gone bad.
As a virgin at the age of 42, she was left standing at the altar, a devastating event that had a two-fold effect: first, it made her go crazy, and second, it made her dedicate her life to making all men suffer for her pain. And what is her main weapon in this quest? Why, it's beautiful young Estella, who Ms. Dinsmoor raises to be a literal man destroyer. Beautiful as a porcelain doll and just as cold to the bone, Estella will "cut through men like soft butter," as Ms. Dinsmoor puts it.
And, despite warnings that she will hurt him, Finn falls for Estella from their first ten-year-old kiss, sealing his destiny of chasing after a woman who has been programmed to hurt him. The romantic tragedy here is that there can be no romance because Estella has been taught all her life to fear men. So, in order to avoid being hurt herself, she always inflicts the first wound on her prey. In Ms. Dinsmoor's world, Estella is the "snake," and Finn is the "mouse" brought in as a young boy for her training.
After their paths separate in high school (she goes off to Europe for school), Finn and Estella are brought back together again as adults in New York City when Finn is mysteriously invited to open an art show. As a boy and teenager, he was an avid artist, but he gave it up when Estella first left him and instead spent years working with his Uncle Joe (Chris Cooper) as a fisherman. Then, one day, a lawyer in an expensive suit shows up and tells him that an unnamed party in New York has somehow seen some of his work, and wants to pay him to open a show.
Much of the importance of this unbelievably fabulous turn of events is lost in the update; it feels more like a cheap plot gimmick to get Finn and Estella back together instead of the heart of the moral warning. In the original Dickens novel, Finn (or Pip as he was originally named by Dickens) inherited great wealth. In the movie, basically the same thing happens in the form of fame and success being heaped on him due to the art show, but the essential meaning behind this aspect of the story is almost forgotten. Finn lies a bit about his past and he gets a bit cocky, but the entire notion of his being ruined by the wealth falls short, and his new attitudes come off like bad scripting instead.
In fact, this is symptomatic of the entire problem undermining "Great Expectations:" it wants to update Dickens by dropping almost everything Dickensian. The problem is that some of ol' Charles' ideas are extremely Victorian and rooted in his ideas about class conflict, and they don't translate too well into a hip flick for MTV goers, which this movie is obviously aimed at. While not quite as far-flung or misguided as last year's audacious "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," "Great Expectations" does have its problems with making the old new.
On the positive side, the film has a number of good moments, including the scenes between Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro. Hawke was a fine but uninspired choice for the pained artist, but Paltrow never seems to hit the right notes as his femme fatale. She's certainly beautiful and her ability to be icy cold is well honed, but she never finds the true balance in the character, quite possibly because there may be none there. Estella is never explained in terms that can be understood or appreciated, and she ends up somewhat otherworldly and inexplicable.
Much of the fault of the film can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Mitch Glazer for not bringing the story into modern, real-world terms, and director Cuaron ("A Little Princess") for his misdirection of key scenes. While he chooses some interesting camera angles and makes some parts of the film poetic, he botches both the introduction to Ms. Dinsmoor and an important sequence with Finn sketching Estella in the nude. Both times there is the potential for real mystery and magic, but instead he turns up the volume and drowns it out. I can picture so many clever ways of introducing Ms. Dinsmoor that would set an appropriate mood for her character, but Cuaron hauls her onstage singing a goofy Mexican song called "Besame Mucho," which makes her silly instead of tragic.
"Great Expectation" ends up falling apart at the seams because it is stitched together of so many conflicting parts. Despite incredible production design by Tony Burrough ("Richard III") and cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki ("A Walk in the Clouds"), the movie never takes hold of and maintains any kind of tone (it even gets its time wrong: the film is supposed to be taking place during the burgeoning art scene of the mid 80's, but the music and wardrobe is a mix of late 70's and early 90's). "Great Expectations" is at once lyrical, romantic, tragic, goofy, and utterly ridiculous, which makes it impossible to get lost in.
©1998 James Kendrick