"Great Expectations"

A strange, breathtaking and rapturous new updating of Dickens' 'Great Expectations.' Film review by Charles Taylor.


Charles Taylor
December 31, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

"DICKENS IS ONE of those writers who are well worth stealing," wrote George Orwell. In his dreams, Dickens couldn't have asked for more elegant or sympathetic thieves than Alfonso Cuarsn and Mitch Glazer, the director and screenwriter responsible for the strange, breathtaking and rapturous new updating of "Great Expectations."

They've changed Dickens' tale of a blacksmith's apprentice given the chance to become a gentleman in early 19th century Britain to the story of a young artist (Ethan Hawke) given the chance to become a success in 1990s New York. As in the novel, the hero has a secret benefactor whose munificence allows him to work toward his dream of becoming successful and thus winning Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), the haughty beauty who hovers tantalizingly beyond his reach. Often, though, in movies, it's less important for filmmakers to be faithful to a novel's particulars than to its spirit. Reimagining a book can be just as true a mark of respect, a demonstration that the heart of a work is strong enough to support unexpected transformations.

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The heart of Dickens' novel beats strong and true through all the elisions and changes of Cuarsn and Glazer's film. Each of them has already proven himself an inspired adapter. Cuarsn infused his film of Francis Hodgson Burnett's fairy tale "A Little Princess" with a lush sensuousness, and Glazer (in collaboration with the late Michael O'Donoghue) transformed "A Christmas Carol" into the satirical "Scrooged" without sacrificing the spirit of that most wonderful of ghost stories. They emerge here as wizards. "Great Expectations" offers the thrill of people taking chances, beautifully reckless chances that all pay off by a combination of confidence, skill and daring. The English marsh country where the hero grows up has become Florida's Gulf Coast; his name has been changed from the Anglo (and archaic) sounding "Pip" to the more American and allusive Finn; and the escaped convict aided by the young Pip has become a death row fugitive convicted in a mob killing. This isn't a matter of grafting the bones of a classic onto a contemporary setting (` la the cheesy opportunism of "West Side Story"), but of rethinking what it means to set "Great Expectations" a continent and almost 200 years away. There's no greater measure of Cuarsn and Glazer's ardent fidelity to their source then the way they plunge into the gothic strangeness of Dickens' novel.

All great novels are strange in their own way. That has less to do with the different customs of another time and place than with the quicksilver mysteriousness of great books, the way they resist being summed up by their theme. "Great Expectations" is a story about how pride separates a young man from the people who love him best, and from his own best instincts. Pip, who rejects the honest and simple man who raises him, and then the even less lofty man who turns out to be his benefactor, calls up every conflict we've ever felt between yearning for the larger world and wishing to remain loyal to the smaller one we came from. That's the primal pull of Dickens. And yet much of the novel bursts the bounds of that subject: Pip's terrifying graveyard encounter with the escaped convict Magwitch; the tormenting muse Estella; his sojourns to the decaying mansion of Miss Havisham, the dowager who locks herself in a rotting private world where time stopped at the precise moment she was jilted on her wedding day.

Those vivid and inexplicable scenes have everything to do with what Orwell called Dickens' extreme sensitivity to the "visualizing tendency" of childhood. We experience a Dickens novel through the skin of the protagonist. And because Finn is an artist, Cuarsn has a built-in means of translating Dickens' "visualizing tendency" from words into images. Working with two brilliant collaborators, production designer Tony Burrough and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarsn has made the movie's emotions inseparable from its visuals. This isn't just one of the most stunning-looking pictures in recent memory; because we see the world as Finn does, nearly every shot advances the story both dramatically and emotionally.

"Great Expectations" exudes an air of voluptuous decay. The mansion of Ms. Dinsmoor (the Miss Havisham figure, played by Anne Bancroft, excessively, as if Carol Channing had attempted Blanche DuBois) is a gilded wreck where hanging vines and a carpet of dead leaves decorate the ballroom and gulls wing their way past the remnants of gold-leaf ceilings. In its way, New York feels just as strange. When Finn and Estella meet in Central Park, it's a golden bower, and the nighttime vistas of the Manhattan skyline are so bejeweled they seem to have been willed into being by Finn's dreams. Elsewhere, ancient chambers seem to have come to life and taken over hidden corners of the city, interiors are brushed with the dying ember glow of firelight, the nighttime streets of SoHo have the velvety blackness of a mysterious forest. Cuarsn is an expressionist by temperament, and he achieves some astonishing, unself-conscious effects. One shot begins with Finn standing on the sidewalk looking up at the night sky and then moves up through the clouds to the window of a plane where Estella sits as she flies away from him.

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Glazer and Cuarón understand that you respond differently to Dickens at different ages. Even when the characters are children, the film vibrates with an adult emotional intensity. When the young Estella (the almost preternaturally composed Raquel Beaudene) French-kisses the young Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) as he drinks from a fountain, the moment has the tumultuousness of their later sexual encounters. We're seeing the beginning of a consuming passion, and Cuarón treats it as such. And the filmmakers understand that the pain of the story comes as much from what the hero inflicts as from what he bears. The scene where Joe (a very touching Chris Cooper), the man who raised Finn, attends his New York opening is so acutely painful that I had to force myself to watch the screen. We experience it from both their points of view, and it brings back those horrible moments when we betray the people closest to us because, seen outside familiar surroundings, they embarrass us.

Making Finn an artist provides an added sting: His art expresses his unfulfilled longing for Estella (Finn's spare, delicate charcoals and watercolors are by Francesco Clemente). The sting of having Finn and Estella make love is that, afterward, she's no less distant. For all the heat that Hawke and Paltrow generate (as in the wonderful scene where she poses for him), the movie never loses its air of longing. "Great Expectations" is that rarity: a genuinely sexy film that's also genuinely romantic. Estella has been raised by Ms. Dinsmoor to take revenge on men by breaking their hearts. The quality that has come to define Hawke -- his near-guilelessness -- makes sure that when Estella breaks Finn's heart, ours break too. Hawke gives a performance that's both tentative and emotionally naked. Finn is both hero and observer, a mixture of romantic constancy and romantic striving. Hawke gets the slightly dazed way someone who's been thunderstruck goes through life, without making Finn seem pathetic or merely lovelorn. His abiding passion for Estella completes him, the life he dedicates to winning her becomes, as Pip says in the book, "not so much to give to the theme that so long filled my heart."

There's a moment in the film "Saratoga Trunk" when Curt Bois says to Ingrid Bergman, "You're very beautiful," and she answers, "Yes, isn't it lucky?" What's lucky for Cuarón isn't just that Paltrow is beautiful enough to make you understand how, for Finn, everything else pales beside her, it's that, for the first time, she's believable as an actress. Estella is a damnably hard role, the teasing paradox of a beauty whose outer radiance has no inner correspondent. We have to be able to grieve for Estella, though she's incapable of grieving for anything, even herself. Paltrow expresses the melancholy that Estella can't articulate in the way the ease between her and Finn -- how they share a cigarette or the slow smile she favors him with -- snaps shut behind her need to close off her emotions. She's bewitching and, in a different way from Hawke, just as heartbreaking.

Those of us who have never forgotten Finlay Currie as Magwitch in the David Lean version of "Great Expectations" may be unprepared to admit another actor in the role into our affections. But in his three scenes as the convict (renamed Lustig) who becomes Finn's secret benefactor, Robert De Niro does some of his most complex -- and certainly his warmest -- acting. When we first see Lustig, he's a scary con with a shaved head. Reappearing years later, bearded and long-haired, to reveal himself to Finn, he might be the Ancient Mariner of the Village.

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De Niro has to simultaneously play this man's joy at seeing Finn's success, wry amusement that Finn has never suspected him of being his benefactor and hurt that Finn is repulsed by him. The long sequence between Finn and Lustig takes on the stature of myth, and a good deal of the reason is De Niro; without sacrificing a master actor's control, he floods the picture with emotion.

If nothing else, "Great Expectations" reminds you of how poisonously misleading a movie's negative buzz can be. When Twentieth Century Fox pulled "Great Expectations" from its Christmas release schedule, critics and industry watchers pounced on this as proof that the studio had no faith in the film. It never fails to amaze me how many critics are willing to take a studio's word on a picture they haven't yet seen when the release is postponed or when it isn't given a big publicity push. Don't they know that the originality of "Great Expectations" is the very thing that sends studio execs into a panic? Reportedly, Fox put pressure on Cuarón to scale down his vision, and he refused. And it's that production-out-of-control side of the story that's circulating now (as in the current Premiere profile of Paltrow). But "Great Expectations" is a triumph because Cuarón's vision prevailed. He seems to be one of those artists capable of reminding us how we first experienced movies, as an overpowering enchantment. Finn calls his childhood encounter with the convict "a brush with a world so large you seldom or never see it again." In movie terms, that brush is the rare sight of a visionary filmmaker taking soaring, glorious flight.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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