Great Expectations, Zero Results
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
By Kyle J. Hammer
When a novel is made into a film, classic or not, people frequently have the complaint that the film version is never as good as the book, and generally they are correct. Film versions tend to stink up the theatre. Notable exceptions to this unwritten rule are The Godfather (which was better than the book), some Tom Clancy adaptations, and The Shawshank Redemption. Such films become great because a talented writer and director adapts them, and sticks to the themes of the original work while adding their own creative instincts that make the work original and exciting.
When a film version does not come off as well as the book it is generally because, the filmmakers, who want to keep the film as short as possible to maximize screenings, focus on the events of the story and miss out on little things like character development and the thematic elements of the material. It is in this vein that Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations falls.
The classic story is transposed from 19th century England to late 20th century Florida West Coast and New York City. The film begins in Finn's (or Pip who is played by Ethan Hawke, and renamed Finn for this updated version) Florida childhood. The opening scene consists of some beautiful shots of the Gulf of Mexico and the swampy regions of southern Florida. Finn is on a small boat sketching objects one finds in the sea, hinting at his affinity for art, which later takes the place of the desire for aristocracy found in the original novel. It is here that he encounters the convict Lustig (Robert De Niro), who becomes the key to Finn's fate, and aids Lustig in his escape.
Finn's parents are dead and he lives with his older sister and her husband Joe (Chris Cooper). The sister leaves one day and never returns leaving Joe, whom Finn calls his uncle to raise him. The film continues to go through the motions as Finn encounters the slightly crazy Miss Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow). After coming upon Estella while helping Joe with a gardening job at Dinsmoor's lavish, but dilapidated estate Paradiso Perduto, Finn is invited to play with Estella and entertain Dinsmoor every Saturday, which he proceeds to do.
Obviously this visit becomes a regular occurrence because the film dissolves ten years into the future when Gwyneth and Ethan appear as the older versions of their characters still dancing to Besame Mucho for the eccentric Dinsmoor. Finn has fallen in love (surprise!) with Estella, but the grotesquely overdone conflict of rich vs. poor gets in his way and Estella goes off to Europe for "finishing" school. Finn had demonstrated a great deal of talent for art, but on account of his subject and love having left him, he gives this up to pursue the less lucrative world of commercial fishing.
However, his life is once again thrown a turn. A lawyer visits him one day and states that he has been "empowered by his client to make your dreams come true." Finn is then given the chance to paint and sell his art commercially. A mysterious benefactor magically whisks him away to exciting New York City all expenses paid for that purpose.
Upon arriving Finn agrees to paint, and begins his work again, but (surprise again!) Estella is in New York too. This of course complicates his situation. The film then goes quickly through the motions, almost forcing every situation to come about, without ever actually examining why the characters are doing what they're doing. Estella seems to fall in love with Finn, but then marries another guy. Finn becomes a success in the art world, and consequently quite wealthy. Estella is no longer there to notice. Dinsmoor is revealed to be the cause in part of this and a confrontation between her and Finn takes place, which again seems contrived, and forced only as a necessary plot device that doesn't have any rational basis in the characters.
I of course won't say has the film ends, but it is in some respect faithful to Dickens' ending. This seems of little redeeming value because the characters' relationships and themes never do match up to the original. Of course Pip's pursuance of Estella was always key, but the film never touched on his relationship with Joe and his desire to be in the aristocracy, and his pursuit of education. All three elements are key to the structure of the novel and were either only hinted at or non-existent in the film. This explains why Finn, Estella, and Miss Dinsmoor's relationships never come off as believable.
The essential plot points are present but they seem rushed and incomplete. In an effort to keep audience appeal and a short running time the filmmakers leave out the meaning and emotion of the story. Hawke's performance is fairly good and believable. His transformation from naivete to worldliness is done well, but his character is ultimately a victim of the screenplay. Anne Bancroft does her usual excellent work as Dinsmoor. It is slightly over the top, but quite entertaining and is actually one of the most faithful to Dickens' novel.
Gwyneth Paltrow is never on screen long enough to be either good or bad. Hers is the most unconvincing as her actions come from no where. The audience is never given any of her thoughts or emotions, she simply exists because if she doesn't what reason is there for the movie? De Niro is in the film for about ten minutes total. He suffers from the same fate, as his motivations are never revealed. Ultimately Great Expectations produces very little except a series of actions about which we are never given a reason to care.