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Why did I see this film? I’m a huge fan of Cuaron’s interpretation of the Harry Potter universe and having lately experienced the original Great Expectations I was intensely interested in what his modernized spin was like.

And what a mixed viewing experience this one turned out to be. Okay, so I’m not against updated classics with televisions and taxis thrown into the mix. Grungifying Dickens isn’t sacrilege to me – I think the results can be absolutely fascinating, even if not perfect, and therefore it is worth the risk. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that, as anyone who read my post about the original knows, I considered the story to be a work of genius due to its innumerable subplots. Unfortunately, Mitch Glazer’s screenplay chopped out almost all of them, focusing in on the love story of Pip and Estella. I say unfortunate, because by removing everyone else they interacted with in the story, character growth basically doesn’t happen. What Alfonso Cuaron was working with here is as simple as a fairytale and as shallow as something from a celebrity magazine. It’s a beautiful iceberg of a film. (Spoilers beyond)

Pip is now called Finn (Ethan Hawke) and is raised on the Florida coast by his loving uncle Joe (Chris Cooper). Hired by the demented Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) as a companion to Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), he falls in love with her at first sight. A mysterious benefactor sends him to New York to pursue his artistic career, which Finn uses to bring himself to Estella’s level, but will his efforts win him the girl?

Yes, you heard me, Finn ‘uses’ his artistic talent. As a child he is shown drawing for the love of it; as an adult he draws to fill his gallery (except when Estella is his subject). He’s rude to everybody at parties and leaves the second he’s sure that Estella’s not there. After his paintings are sold he proceeds to stand in the rain outside her house and crow about how his success means she won’t have to be embarrassed by him anymore. His art becomes nothing but a means to an end over the course of the film.

Finn is not really a likable guy, when all’s said and done. He has all of Pip’s faults and none of his strengths. The Herbert character is gone, so there’s no one for him to be generous to; Finn’s Provis (called Lustig and played by Robert De Niro) dies only an hour or two after meeting Finn; Joe is treated shabbily, of course; Dinsmoor is nothing but a cold-blooded lunatic… The only one left is Estella and Finn’s desire for her seems more a lust for the unobtainable than anything else. This is all the more frustrating because Finn gets voiceover narration (which should correct this heartlessness but doesn’t even try to).

So much for emotional impact, what about the acting? Ethan Hawke is uneven. He hasn’t the range one could wish for in this role – sometimes he’s good, sometimes flat-footed. He seems uptight and awkward in his scenes with Paltrow and Bancroft but natural elsewhere (maybe he was going for that? I mean, who would feel comfortable around those two?).

Gwyneth Paltrow is more consistent – she looks the part absolutely and does a nice job at being an attractive ice queen, though she never surprises. Estella is supposed to soften up at the end, and Paltrow gamely tries to bring that across – that she fails is not her fault but Mitch Glazer’s. Walter (Hank Azaria) courts Estella as Drummle did, but Walter is a dweeb nice-guy with zero charisma and glasses (yeah, that offends me). They end up divorced but no indication is given that he’s the cruel and abusive husband Drummle was. Like with Oedipus, suffering is the making of Estella, harsh though that sounds. This Estella gives no indication that her experience with Walter mattered – therefore how can I believe that she’ll treat Finn in a new way?

Elsewhere, Robert De Niro’s walk-on role is fine – his convict is scary and his benefactor is likable – but Anne Bancroft is frankly awful. She plays Ms. Dinsmoor as a sociopathic drama queen and a camp one at that. She’s in relentless bad taste from start to finish and her “repentance” just looks like one more chance to strike a pose. There’s nothing sincere about this character.

So it’s Chris Cooper who walks away with the Best Actor award in this movie. He is Joe, in all his uncouth, warm-hearted glory. The top billed actors all seem slightly inhibited and self-consciously ‘studied’ in their manners, but Chris Cooper just seems natural. His gatecrash of the gallery is the only emotionally impactful scene, the only scene that really affected me, and Cooper’s performance is even better if you compare it to Conklin in The Bourne Identity. This is an actor I’ll be keeping an eye on.

So, when the acting is mostly just OK and the romance is superficial, when there’s no great emotional impact and it could easily qualify as having the Worst Adapted Screenplay of 1998, what is there to really recommend this film?

Simply put, the visuals are stunning. Every ounce of artistry lost to the script reappears on the level of the image. This entire film trades off its literary origins in search of an image that will hopefully speak as loudly as the lost words. In a way, it’s as if Cuaron were constructing a visible poem, along with an auditory accompaniment. Perhaps having Iggy Pop’s Success in the background is jarringly goofy for such a ‘serious’ film, but the addition of Tori Amos and others is a delicious flavoring agent to Patrick Doyle’s tastefully romantic score.

Then there’s the greenery. Everybody comments on it as the major stylistic theme of Great Expectations. There’s a little too much green, actually. It’s easy to disguise in architecture, trees and street lamps but when Dinsmoor and Estella are seen in their fifth and sixth colour-coded outfits…well, minor complaint. Endless arrays of birds also filter through the film, and while I don’t especially care what they symbolically represent (any answer would sound trite), they do make nice focal points for the visual splendour Cuaron seems to excel at.

Rather than the vital components being told in dialogue, Cuaron prefers the image. The introduction of Finn’s sister Maggie brings with it the taint of adultery; Finn’s race through the fishing village to his house shows beauty rather than poverty; the Alhambra fountain at the Dinsmoor place is seen to lie broken at the end but the camera doesn’t zoom in on it – it’s left for you to discover. One of my favorite images was the fantastic cost-cutting flight scene where Finn’s journey to New York is depicted with only a toy airplane, a map and engine sound-effects. And I could go on and on.

The camerawork? How about that stunning single shot which tracks Finn out of the rain, into the back of a Chinese restaurant and then back out with Estella? Speaking of which, Estella is one of the strongest visuals this film has going for it; whether as a snobbish little girl (played by Raquel Beaudene opposite Jeremy James Kissner as young Finn – both are pretty good considering their age) or as Paltrow, the camera loves her. Actually, the camera loves everything placed before it and a gorgeous picture is the result.

Not much for humour here, just Joe and a New York pay phone caller to provide a few grins. But that’s good – I’ve always disliked stapled-together films where there is a designated ‘comic relief’ character meant to alleviate the tension.

Great Expectations is an odd little film, flawed in many ways yet somehow still able to stand on its own two feet. Condensing Charles Dickens’ novel into a two-hour film with only one subplot is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, alas, but the tub left behind is at least as beautiful as it is empty. I’d say the beauty of the piece just slightly outweighs its flaws…therefore…three and a half stars is my verdict. Give it a try sometime – it has its rewards and I am certainly going to track down more of Cuaron’s work…

Am I keeping the DVD? Since I watched it twice this past week and liked it better the second time, yes. This one is staying on the shelves.

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