Great Expectations (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

You have to give a film maker credit for exhibiting the necessary chutzpah to take one of the most beloved classics in the English language, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, and transform it into a modern-day morality play/romance. Viewers who approach this motion picture with the mistaken expectation that it's going to be the kind of rigorously faithful adaptation that David Lean produced in 1946 are likely to be disappointed. Nevertheless, while Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations falls considerably short of being a definitive interpretation of the novel, it still offers an entertaining two hours.

Great Expectations is considered by many to be Dickens' finest novel. It is certainly among his darkest, even with the less-downbeat ending that the author's friends prompted him to include. Like Oliver Twist before it, Great Expectations draws heavily from events in the writer's own life, which in part explains its believability and strength of character. One of the book's chief themes – that of a poor boy crossing class barriers to pursue the girl of his dreams – offered Cuaron (A Little Princess) and writer Mitch Glazer their biggest challenge. With the setting changed from 19th century England to contemporary Florida and New York, the social scale of Victorian England lost its validity. Surprisingly, however, the story survived the transition relatively unscathed.

Even as the setting has changed, so have the names and occupations of many of the characters. The lead is no longer Pip; he's now called Finn, and is played by Ethan Hawke (with an assist from Jeremy Kissner as a ten-year old). Estella, the love of Finn's life, is still Estella, and she is portrayed by a radiant-yet-restrained Gwyneth Paltrow (and Raquel Beaudene at a younger age). Mad Miss Havisham has become the equally deranged Miss Dinsmore, who spends her days in a ruined house mourning a wedding that never took place. With Anne Bancroft in this part, it's easy to imagine that Nora Dinsmore could be Mrs. Robinson gone bonkers, thirty years later. The criminal Magwich has become Lustig, an escaped death row inmate, and is essayed by Robert DeNiro, who leaves a stronger impression here than in the recent Jackie Brown. Finally, Chris Cooper (Lone Star) plays Finn's "uncle", Joe Gargery (no name change), and Hank Azaria is Walter Plane, Finn's rival for Estella.

The story has Finn meeting Estella in the late 1970s, when both are ten years old. Neither has any parents. Finn lives with his sister and her boyfriend; Estella has been adopted by Miss Dinsmore, who, despite being insane, is one of the richest women in Florida. Despite a warning from the old lady that Estella will break his heart, Finn falls for the golden-haired girl, but their relationship never progresses beyond wet kisses at a water fountain. Finn is in earnest, but Estella likes to tease. More than a decade later, they meet in New York City. He's there to break into the Manhattan art scene (and earn enough money to impress her), while she's contemplating marriage to a man named Walter Plane, who has commitment problems. And, hidden beneath the love story, there's a mystery. Someone is bankrolling Finn's success. He assumes it's Miss Dinsmore, but is the truth perhaps less obvious?

I have heard this version of Great Expectations mentioned in the same breath as 1996's Romeo + Juliet. And, while there are some similarities, it doesn't seem like the most appropriate comparison to make. Romeo + Juliet used Shakespeare's original text and pumped up the visual elements, using riotous colors and camera tricks. Although director Cuaron has a distinctive visual style, it's much more sedate than that of Baz Luhrmann, and the only color to have any prominence is green. The dialogue is definitely not Dickens. On the other hand, Great Expectations bears a strong resemblance to Clueless, a re-working of Jane Austen's Emma, in both intent and execution. The story and themes are still there, mostly intact, yet those unfamiliar with the original text might not realize that the essential elements have been lifted from a classic novel.

The actors do admirable jobs. Hawke is earnest and likable; Paltrow is erotic but icy; Bancroft is off-the-wall; and DeNiro is suitably sinister. There's no real heat between Hawke and Paltrow, but there is a connection, and the manner in which these two play their scenes has the perfect pitch for such an ambiguous, and possibly one-sided, relationship. All of the performances feed into the essence of Great Expectations, with its elements of unrequited love, broken class barriers, and unexpected revelations.

The script, written by Mitch Glazer (who previously updated another Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol, as the almost-unwatchable Scrooged), is straightforward, and sticks to the spirit of the original (the ending is not embellished, Hollywood-style). For the most part, this motion picture feels like a contemporary fable. (After all, where else but in a fairy tale could you find an empty New York City subway train at six o'clock in the morning?) The majority of the film's missteps are not so much the result of shifting the novel in time and place, but of condensing it to fit into a two-hour time slot. Great Expectations may not be an absolute triumph, but it's significantly better than just a good effort.

Great Expectations (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1998-01-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1