I’ll be the first to admit it. When you mention the book Great Expectations, I immediately begin experiencing flashbacks to junior high English class, where I was confronted with a torturously boring book filled with people with such nonsensical names as Pip and Magwitch. Yes, it’s a classic of literature, but it was a rather dry one, shoved down my young throat like a spoonful of bitter medicine. Certainly, the experience wasn’t truly that bad, but, to quote Ethan Hawke in the latest movie adaptation of said book, “I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened…I’ll gonna tell it the way I remember it.” Anyway, to return from nostalgia lane, and get back to the present, Hollywood, in it’s trendy attempt to modernize the classics, now presents an updated film version of Great Expectations.
Instead of Pip, this time the central character is named Finn (played as a boy by Jeremy Kissner, and by Ethan Hawke as an adult). Finn is an orphan being raised by his unfaithful sister Maggie, or should that be Mrs. Joe, (Kim Dickens), and her boorish fisherman husband, Joe (Chris Cooper). The setting is the Florida coast during the mid-70s. Finn is a blooming artist, and spends his time running around the beach drawing fish (one of his two favorite subjects).
During one of these escapades, he literally stumbles upon an escaped criminal (Robert DeNiro). Borrowing a page from the superhuman Max Cady, DeNiro’s criminal has a seemingly limitless lung capacity, and favors hiding on the ocean floor. OK…maybe that’s an exaggeration, but he certainly beats any of Houdini’s records in the opening scenes of the film. And that’s nothing next to the fuel efficiency of Finn’s motorboat, but I digress. Anyway, Finn does the convict a good deed, just to show that he’s a really swell guy. And then the plot moves on.
Enter Miss Havisham…or Ms. Dinsmoor here (Anne Bancroft). Abandoned at the altar some 26 years ago, Ms. Dinsmoor is the epitome of the crazy rich old maid. With bizarre clothing, eccentric mannerisms and a few pounds of makeup, Anne Bancroft seriously overacts in this role. Although she ends up nowhere near a believable character, she does add some humor to the film. Joe is hired to help with the gardening at her unkempt manner, but the insane Ms. Dinsmoor soon hires Finn to be a plaything for her niece, Estella (Raquel Beaudene as a young girl, Gwyneth Paltrow as an adult).
For no apparent reason, other than to provide the main plot of the film, Finn is instantly stricken for the Estella. Perhaps it’s her snooty attitude or her utter disdain for his person, or maybe Finn has simply never met a girl before. In any case, neither as children nor adults, chemistry simply doesn’t exist between the two, and yet Finn spends the remainder of the film pining for her.
Even when, as an adult, Finn arrives in New York at the behest of a mysterious benefactor, reacquaints himself with Estella, and draws her portrait in the nude, there’s nothing. In fact, there is more sexual tension between Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear’s gay artist during a similar scene in As Good As It Gets. At this point, the audience has grown as cold and detached as Estella’s character, and couldn’t care less about the two characters.
The bulk of the blame here falls upon Gwyneth Paltrow. She fails to imbue Estella, a remote character in the book, with even the vaguest traces of humanity. There’s obviously something wrong when, watching the film, you’re more interested with how big her nose looks in silhouette than you are about her character. Without a strong Estella, Finn’s obsession seems baseless. You wish he would just stop whining, let Estella marry his rival, Walter Plane (an oddly subdued Hank Azaria), and just get on with his life.
In fact, the two relationships that work in the film are purely tangential to the main plot. Finn’s relationship with his brother-in-law, Joe, is interesting, if a bit stereotypical. What’s more fascinating are his interactions with DeNiro. Although it’s only a bit part, it goes to show how much vitality a strong actor can create.
It is apparent that director Alfonso Cuarón put a lot of work in creating the imagery of the film. Some of the shots work, but others are too obviously staged (for example, both of the water fountain scenes) to have any impact. Finn’s art (actually the creations of Italian painter, Francesco Clemente) is used throughout the film, but it mostly fails to have the intended effect. We never see why Finn would generate this style of art, which is simultaneously crude and insightful. As a result, it ends up as distant as the rest of the film.
Modernizing the classics is currently in vogue (just see William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet). Simply update the action to a modern setting, and apply plenty of modern rock. But such adornments do little to perk up Great Expectations. As much as I dreaded the novel when I first read it, you’d probably be better off suffering though a reading than watching this romanceless film.