Friday January 30, 1998
Despite the occasional wounded cry from critics, updating a classic piece of literature for the screen is not a crime against nature. Not even when, as is the case with "Great Expectations," a superb film version of the story already exists.
For every reader who's enjoyed the irresistible Charles Dickens novel, for every film buff who's seen the splendid 1946 David Lean-directed interpretation, there are much greater numbers who've never so much as heard of the story of the ever-striving Pip, the convict Magwitch, the reclusive Miss Havisham and the unattainable Estella. And as Baz Luhrmann's unchained version of "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" proved a few years ago, adding a contemporary sensibility to venerable material can accomplish a great deal.
But to succeed, a modern version has to know what it's about and be able to carry its own weight. Change is not sacrilege, but losing the spark that animated the original is. Unable to decide how serious it should be or how close to the source it can safely remain, the latest "Great Expectations" suffers from being neither here nor there. In its rush to modernize its story and attract a young audience with stars like Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, the film ends up problematic both in relation to the original and on its own terms.
As written by Mitch Glazer and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, this "Great Expectations" does convincingly move its story from London and vicinity to the Gulf Coast of Florida and glamorous New York. With expert Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Cuaron's "A Little Princess," "A Walk in the Clouds" and "Like Water for Chocolate") doing the honors, this film has a lush, pictorial quality that is always inviting.
Growing up on that bucolic coast is a dreamy boy named Finn, well-played by young Jeremy James Kissner. Finn nominally lives with his sister but is closer to her fisherman boyfriend, Joe ("Lone Star's" Chris Cooper), who affably encourages the boy's desire to be an artist.
The larger world startlingly intrudes on these quiet lives with two unrelated incidents. A terrifying escaped convict (Robert De Niro) comes upon the boy and demands help with his chains. And something about Finn catches the eye of the eccentric Nora Dinsmoor, the richest woman on the coast, whose mind was unhinged when her fiance left her at the altar 30 years before.
Paradiso Perduto, Dinsmoor's wonderland of a house on a wildly overgrown estate, is given a fine brooding look by production designer Tony Burrough, who did the near-contemporary "Richard III" starring Ian McKellen. But though she is made up to be as dilapidated as her surroundings, Anne Bancroft's Ms. Dinsmoor is not a success.
Choosing Bancroft, who has made over-the-top portrayals something of a habit in recent years, to play a woman who is extravagantly mad is asking for trouble. Wildly dressed, gesturing grandly with a cigarette holder and muttering things like "chicka-boom, chicka-boom" to various recorded versions of "Besame Mucho," Bancroft makes Ms. Dinsmoor the one thing she really shouldn't be, which is silly. Even worse, her excessiveness has been allowed to set the film's tone in a fatally off-putting way.
True to the novel, Finn meets the woman's young but already beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beuadene), whom the vengeful Dinsmoor is raising to be a cold and effective enemy to all men. Naturally, Finn falls in love with her, a feeling that doesn't lessen when he grows up into Ethan Hawke and she into Gwyneth Paltrow.
Given that Finn is a poor fisherman and the haughty Estella is soon packed off to one of those European finishing schools, the better to ensure, says her aunt, that "she'll cut through [men] like a hot knife through butter," any chance of Finn's romantic dreams coming true seems limited.
But then a lawyer named Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) appears, announcing a secret benefactor who wants to make some of Finn's dreams come true, wants to ensure his success as an artist in the heady world of New York. Not sure who "wants to turn this frog into a prince" but suspecting Dinsmoor, Finn goes to Manhattan, where he spends his time looking cute in jeans, painting up a storm and, yes, pursuing the gorgeous Estella, who just happens to be in town.
Despite its glamorous and photogenic cast, "Great Expectations" has difficulty using its people effectively. Hawke gives the adult Finn an appealing innocence, but there is something excessively hangdog about the way he moons over the object of his affections. And though the ice-cold beauty of Estella can account for Finn's open-mouthed quality, Paltrow's is also a performance lacking in dimension. The result is that the passion that supposedly exists between these two never shows up on screen.
This is especially problematic because the film's clunky exposition alters the balance that made both the book and the still-vibrant Lean-directed adaptation so successful. Yes, "Great Expectations" is about undying love, but it should also be just as much about loyalty, maturity and the lessons life teaches. Those qualities are touched on, but in its rush to exhibit Paltrow in the sexiest manner possible and focus on the more salable romance angle, the film gives these less glamorous factors too short shrift. As the Hollywood Reporter headlined in a story about the "Great Expectations" movie tie-in novel, the filmmakers were probably thinking, "Who needs Charles Dickens when Gwyneth Paltrow's lying around naked?" The answer is right there on the screen: Everyone.
Great Expectations, 1998. R, for language and some sexuality. An Art Linson production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Alfonso Cuaron. Producer Art Linson. Executive producer Deborah Lee. Screenplay Mitch Glazer, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Steven Weisberg. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Tony Burrough. Art director John Kasarda. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Ethan Hawke as Finnegan Bell. Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella. Hank Azaria as Walter Plane. Chris Cooper as Joe. Anne Bancroft as Ms. Dinsmoor. Robert De Niro as Prisoner. Josh Mostel as Jerry Ragno.